details.aspx Minutes Of Evidence Report

Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Public Accounts Committee, meeting on Thursday, 4 March 2021


Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr William Humphrey (Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Cathal Boylan
Miss Órlaithí Flynn
Mr Harry Harvey
Mr David Hilditch
Mr Maolíosa McHugh
Mr Andrew Muir
Mr Matthew O'Toole


Witnesses:

Mr Stuart Stevenson, Department of Finance
Mr Kieran Donnelly, Northern Ireland Audit Office
Ms Deirdre Toner, Office of the Civil Service Commissioners



Inquiry into Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service: Ms Deirdre Toner, Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I welcome Ms Toner to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). I invite you to make an opening statement if you wish to do so, and then, if you would be kind enough, to take some questions from members, please.

Ms Deirdre Toner (Office of the Civil Service Commissioners): OK. Thank you very much. If it is OK, I will refer to "NICS" instead of "Northern Ireland Civil Service" throughout my presentation.

Good afternoon. I am chairperson of the Civil Service Commissioners (CSC) for Northern Ireland. Thank you for your invitation and the opportunity to address members. In my opening statement, I propose to concentrate on outlining the role of the commissioners and their engagement in the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) report, in the expectation that any other issues from the report and the role of the CSC may be addressed by way of questions.

Who are the Civil Service Commissioners and what do we do? There are three Civil Service Commissioners, including me, appointed to serve in Northern Ireland and supported by a small secretariat. We are based at Stormont House in Belfast. At the outset, I want to say that the commissioners are passionate about promoting public confidence in the process of recruitment to the NICS. We believe that, in many ways, how the NICS recruits its people influences the manner in which the Civil Service is viewed by those it serves and those who aspire to work for it. Commissioners are clear that recruitment policies and practices based on merit serve to build trust and enhance the reputation of the NICS as a flexible and competent deliverer of public services and an employer of choice.

No doubt, we can all agree that the essence of the merit principle may be easily understood. It means the best person for the job, where the person has been selected fairly and openly. However, whilst the principle can be simply stated, the commissioners believe strongly that one of the ways to promote public confidence in the administration of NICS is by ensuring that all those involved in the recruitment process observe the merit principle. In addition, experience has taught us that the operation of the principle must be supported by appropriate administrative systems that are designed with merit as the key focus.

Of course, it is important to remember that the concept of merit does not come out of thin air and that its origin is the statutory framework that sets out the functions that are given to commissioners. The legislation can be found in the form of the Civil Service Commissioners (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. The Order provides that the commissioners shall maintain the principle of selection on merit on the basis of fair and open competition. It goes on to lay out the key statutory functions of the commissioners: requiring the commissioners to draw up a code setting out how practical effect can be given to the merit principle; prescribing the circumstances when the merit principle should not apply; giving commissioners the authority to audit the recruitment policies and practices followed by NICS; giving commissioners the authority to review the publication of certain information on recruitment; requiring that commissioners should authorise appointments to the Senior Civil Service (SCS); and giving commissioners the jurisdiction to consider appeals under the NICS code of ethics.

Members will probably realise that the duty to maintain the merit principle is achieved largely through the application of the recruitment code. The code applies to all appointments made other than internal transfers or promotions. Compliance with the code is mandatory for all involved in the recruitment and selection process. It contains a number of important principles requiring that appointment processes should be fit for purpose, fair and applied with consistency and that appointments should be made in an open, accountable and transparent manner. In drawing up their code, commissioners are keen to recognise that, whilst the code should protect merit, it should be sufficiently flexible to allow NICS to adapt to the requirements of modern business practices. Accordingly, the acceptance provision of the code reflects a recognition by commissioners of the challenges faced by Departments in seeking to deliver a diverse range of public services at pace. They provide a legal basis for appointments that would not otherwise be available.

We are conscious that circumstances may arise where particular skills or experience that are urgently required may not be immediately available in the existing resources and that the appointment of someone other than through merit may be justified. Examples include where a Department wishes to second a person with expertise in a particular work area from another permanent employer to deliver a time-limited project; where NICS may have trouble in recruiting someone with the required skills and knowledge to deliver a function, so they wish to appoint a person of proven distinction to carry out that role; or where a person has been selected under a government programme that may, for example, be set up to provide opportunities for people with disabilities. Members should be reassured that there are checks, balances and time limits in place with regard to exceptions to merit in order to ensure that their application is fair and reasonable. Members will also be interested to note that the substantive provisions of the code set out how commissioners expect appointments to be made to the Senior Civil Service with regard to issues such as attracting candidates, advertising vacancies, the quality and range of information made available to candidates, and the selection and assessment processes used.

As I mentioned a few moments ago when describing our statutory duties, commissioners also have a role in auditing the recruitment policies and practices of NICS to confirm that the recruitment code is observed. Our approach to audit and review is to seek assurances regarding the operation of NICS recruitment policies and practices and to influence improvements. We enjoy regular structured engagement with NICS HR that complements the scheduled audit reviews that we conduct. The position is that audits may be carried out on any part of the recruitment system and may focus on individual Departments or cut across departmental boundaries. At the conclusion of an audit, the outcomes and findings are discussed with NICS and a time frame is agreed for any necessary actions. However, it is important to note that the conduct of a recruitment competition remains the responsibility of NICS HR; in fact, there is limited scope for commissioners to interfere with the recruitment methods deployed, as long as the method chosen is meritorious.

Commissioners also require the NICS to publish annually information on NICS recruitment, including but not limited to evidence that adequate systems for recruitment and selection are in place. The scope of the information to be published can range from details of internal monitoring or of appointments made as exceptions to merit; statistics relating to recruitment activity; section 75 analysis; and actions aimed at advancing diversity, equality of opportunity and targeting areas of under-representation in recruitment. I have already referred to the statutory role of commissioners under article 6 the 1999 Order, which provides that:

"No appointment shall be made to ... the Senior Civil Service ... without the written approval of Commissioners".

A detailed authorisation process is in place in that regard, and it has recently been reviewed to make it more streamlined and to ensure efficiency and timeliness. In addition, the requirement code has now been amended to provide that commissioners shall chair all external Senior Civil Service recruitment panels. That represents an important opportunity for commissioners to reassure themselves that the code is observed in practice.

Finally, with regard to functions, the 1999 Order provides that commissioners may consider and determine appeals made to them by a civil servant under the code of ethics. The code of ethics lays out the Civil Service's values: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. It also prescribes the standards of behaviour that civil servants must comply with. If civil servants consider that they are being required to act in a way that conflicts with the code or if they believe that others are acting in conflict with the code, they may raise those concerns with commissioners.

With regard to outreach and the requirement to ensure the effective discharge of their functions, commissioners regularly engage with NICS HR and other organisations, including regular contact with our counterparts in the GB commission and with the Commission for Public Service Appointments in the Republic of Ireland. We have joined them in pursuit of our shared goals of learning and in the exchange of best practice.

Members will understand that commissioners are constrained in what they can achieve by nature of their statutory remit. However, we seek to assist, insofar as we can, within those constraints while remaining conscious that NICS operates in an ever-changing environment. That requires that commissioners strike an appropriate balance between a principle-based approach and the need to be flexible and dynamic when appropriate.

Before I comment on the Northern Ireland Audit Office report, it would be remiss of me not to observe that the report was published at a time of crisis in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the EU exit. Commissioners acknowledge that those matters have placed unprecedented demands on Civil Service Departments and have inevitably refocused priorities and diverted resources. In preparation for the report, commissioners met a representative of the Northern Ireland Audit Office in November 2019 and discussed their statutory role, stressing that they were primarily concerned with maintaining the merit principle throughout recruitment to NICS. They advocated that that objective was best served by appointments being made as a default position through external recruitment and fair and open competition. Commissioners acknowledged that, while there may be expertise in NICS, external recruitment promotes diversity and inclusion while leaving the door open for civil servants to apply.

Commissioners agree in principle with the recommendations of the report and their underpinning themes as areas that require focus to achieve transformation in NICS and to place the right people in the right posts. They concur that strong leadership and governance and a collective commitment is required to deliver the identified need for transformational and cultural change. We recently had the opportunity to discuss the key findings of the report with the interim head of the Civil Service (HOCS) and some members of the NICS board. I reiterate that commissioners' priority in statute is to ensure that the merit principle is maintained throughout.

Commissioners concur with the assessment of the Northern Ireland Audit Office that the implementation of the recommendations relies not solely on DOF and NICS HR but on all Departments playing their collective part in a coordinated and cooperative manner. Without a culture in which recruitment and the timely planning for it is adequately prioritised and funded, there is a risk that the transformation agenda will not be deliverable.

Commissioners note the report's recommendation that NICS and the Civil Service Commissioners should work in partnership, taking account of how other models operate, to explore how they can best support the delivery of the transformation agenda and the changes needed to reform the recruitment and selection process through NICS. Commissioners would, in principle, be pleased to work in partnership with NICS to achieve that goal. Barriers to that may be the limitations of commissioners' statutory authority, as outlined earlier.

I am happy to take questions.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Thank you very much. The Committee was surprised to learn that the Northern Ireland Civil Service Commissioners are appointed by the Secretary of State. Why are they not appointed by devolved Ministers?

Ms Toner: One of the big things for the commissioners in Northern Ireland, considering the diversity of the society that we come from and the background history, is that independence is very important. It is a key issue for where commissioners sit. There could be a public misconception that there is not a degree of independence. Sitting in the Northern Ireland Office is one area where we can, largely with the support of our arm's-length body (ALB), carry on our functions without political interference or perceived political interference. That is the top-line area.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Although the Secretary of State is, obviously, a politician, and he makes the appointment.

Ms Toner: That is true. We are trying to keep a meritorious process in place in a part of the world that has different equality law and legislation from other areas. It is important that we uphold that because we, as commissioners, are independent; we keep that statutory function safe.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): On the issue of merit and independence, how are you appointed?

Ms Toner: How am I appointed?

Ms Toner: Through the public appointments process. We then —.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): So, you apply, and you go —.

Ms Toner: We apply, yes.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Are you interviewed?

Ms Toner: We are interviewed, and the person who is most meritorious for the job is recommended and put forward for the position.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I presume that the Secretary of State does not sit on that panel.

Ms Toner: The Secretary of State does not sit on that panel.

Ms Toner: I had Northern Ireland Office representatives, an independent sector member, somebody from the Equality Commission and, it was proposed, somebody from the Department of Finance, but not that at stage. It was a little while ago; I am trying to remember to my appointment. I was not prepared for that one.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): So there may well be senior officials from the Northern Ireland Civil Service sitting on the interview panel.

Ms Toner: It was the Northern Ireland Office at that stage. That was the major person at that stage.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Yes, but did you say that someone from the Department of Finance, which, obviously, is a devolved Department, was also on that panel?

Ms Toner: Not on that panel, no.

Mr Hilditch: You are very welcome, Deirdre, this afternoon.

Ms Toner: Thank you.

Mr Hilditch: Unfortunately, the report that we have before us is, quote, "damning and stark" in relation to what we are looking at. I appreciate that you are about 20 months in post at this stage.

Ms Toner: Yes; about two years.

Mr Hilditch: The commissioners' remit is:

"to support a Civil Service that is effective ... and that builds upon its core values to meet the challenges of today and of tomorrow."

Where are you with trying to invoke that? What have you been doing? How have you been able to bring the Civil Service into your mind and what, you think, should be there in accordance with your remit?

Ms Toner: We have specific and limited powers under the 1999 Order. It was a case of, "Right, what is our responsibility on what we do in terms of the meritorious process and in making sure that it is public-facing and in the public interest?". We build relationships with Departments between the NICS, NICS HR and the permanent secretaries. They are our major stakeholders. We look at where our powers can be used to make sure that the processes are fair and meritorious and that the best person for the job is appointed. There is a range of mechanisms that we have, and we have an article 6 process whereby commissioners are involved in chairing the senior competitions.

We monitor the other external competitions to ensure that the four-stage process was fair. It is NICS’s responsibility to develop the process. Our job is to make sure that it is a meritorious process, that it is applied in a fair and even manner, and that everybody who can apply for the job, and the best person for the job, is presented as the top candidate. As far as my commissioners are concerned, that is our priority.

We engage with NICS HR, our stakeholders and the permanent secretaries on a daily and weekly basis in other areas. There are plenty of opportunities to recommend if a policy is being developed or looking at —.

Mr Hilditch: Have you had an opportunity to make many recommendations?

Ms Toner: Business cases are put forward, for example, for exceptions, secondments or particular skills that are needed. Our default position is external recruitment. Why would you not have that as a default mechanism, and then internal candidates can apply? We recommend on that level. We look at the business cases that are put forward to see whether they need that person as an exemption to merit.

Mr Hilditch: Are those recommendations challenged, or are they taken on board?

Ms Toner: They are challenged. We ask, "Should this person be a permanent employee? Why go this route?". We look at challenging that issue, which, I think, is fair.

Mr Hilditch: Have you had a chance to converse with the other devolved jurisdictions to look at what they do and how they would impact on this?

Ms Toner: Yes, we have. We work with the GB commissioners. They have a different regulatory environment from ours; they have a different scale and scope and different legislation that impacts on what they do. We swap skills and abilities in what works well in each jurisdiction. Each recruitment code has been developed to mirror the jurisdiction that it applies to. For equality legislation and our diverse community, we need to make sure that our code reflects the legislation that is in place.

Secondly, our staff teams meet and swap ideas on what works and what does not and what challenges there are for audit issues and complaints because we audit as well. We all have very similar functions in lots of ways. They have their regulatory meritorious process, their audit function, and they look at complaints. We look at complaints under the code of ethics, which is probably a little bit more specific. There are quite a lot of parallels. There will be opportunities in the future for our statutory functions to change. We have had discussions with the GB commissioners to say that we need to look at the Civil Service as a whole in what resources, leadership and governance is needed, and to look at how to resource a people strategy and what that may look like. If we had extra statutory powers, that would be fine, but you need resourcing across the whole of NICS to be able to look at best practice across the world and what a good Civil Service looks like.

Mr Hilditch: The likes of New Zealand, for instance, would sometimes be —

Ms Toner: There are a lot of good examples.

[Inaudible]

Mr Hilditch: best practice.

Ms Toner: The Republic of Ireland's system, for example, is slightly different with slightly different processes. We need to look at where we can build capacity, at recruitment processes and whether they are fit for purpose and get the best person for the job. We need to look at job roles, new recruitment practices and at the timeliness of those practices. I know from the report that there are criticisms of how long that performance takes.

Every public service has challenges because you do not have identified money and you have different trade unions and legal requirements. You have the panels to set up, and you also have security issues. I know that we could say that about every public service, but one thing about public services is that they will get challenged on the policy that they create, and it will be made sure that they adhere to them. There are public perception and trust issues, whereas some parts of the private sector, for example, do not have such barriers. So, there is a bit of looking around at all the different practices and seeing what will work on a meritorious process and will be fair and fit for purpose. You can have a whole range of areas, but you need to keep that core safety mechanism, especially in this area where we live.

Mr Hilditch: How long is your appointment for?

Ms Toner: My appointment is for five years.

Mr Hilditch: Do you have any priorities in the next three years that you will look at specifically?

Ms Toner: Yes, we publish our strategy and our plan. The bottom line is that, when I took over, we were involved in quite a lot of activity that was not under our statutory framework as such. We had a limited team and limited resources. You consider how best you can look at the audit function and creating a safe process within the resources that you have. In our discussions with NICS, NICS HR and our stakeholders, we could discuss a whole range of areas that we could get involved in, but, unless the statutory area is changed, it leaves us with quite a tight remit. We have had discussions about what that could look like, but, again, it is mirrored up to what resources are put in place in the wider context. We could aim for the sky in different areas, but you have to work in partnership closely and the resourcing has to be there for the Civil Service, which owns the process at the end of the day. You need to pick your fights as such.

Mr Hilditch: Yes. You have identified specific areas through the likes of the report, and the Committee has been doing work on, for instance, the difficulty with contracts that roll on and on and look out of control. There does seem to be an issue with senior management at that level. Is there anything specific that you want to look at?

Ms Toner: Contract management, temporary contracts, agency work are symptomatic of the question of where the bigger plan is on workforce planning. One of the main recommendations and discussions that we have had with our stakeholders is about where the plan is, where the business plan is and what the business need is. You take that up a level with the whole of the organisation, so, if you have to fill posts very quickly, it goes back up the line to what each Department is doing. That is not just an NICS HR or Department of Finance responsibility; it is a responsibility across the whole of the organisation. Some of those areas are symptomatic of having to react very quickly to needs as well as to EU exit, COVID-19, and an under-resourced public service for those particular issues.

Mr Hilditch: Finally, you mentioned the sizeable chunk of money that goes on agency work. What input do you have into the appointment of agency staff? Do you look at that at all?

Ms Toner: No, we do not.

Mr Hilditch: Does it concern you?

Ms Toner: Coming from the different sectors, sometimes you need agency staff for the very quick turnover of particular pieces of work. Agency staff will always be more expensive, and it is a case that needs to be planned. Some organisations need agency staff, and some do not. It is one of a range of toolkits that organisations have. It does not necessarily mean that it is the best way to go forward when the sustainability of a job and being able to grow in a job is considered. It is not part of our remit to comment on that. Organisations have their recruitment practices, and we look at the meritorious process there.

Mr Hilditch: There does seem to be a problem.

Ms Toner: We agree that there are challenges outlined in the report over a range of areas that could seek investment.

Mr Muir: Thank you, Deirdre, for coming along this afternoon. I have two points. You outlined in your opening statement the constraints that you face as a result of the statutory remit of the commissioners. Can you outline whether any proposals have been made to change that remit and enhance the role of the commissioners?

Ms Toner: Are you asking what I did or what I would suggest?

Mr Muir: Yes; what has been done so far and what you would suggest.

Ms Toner: I suppose that we would like to have an impact on a range of areas. There is no doubt about that. The GB commission has another statutory power, which is to extend and carry out functions in relation to the Civil Service additional to its legislative powers. That allows the GB commission to recommend and look at training, among other areas. That is, possibly, somewhere where we could go. We could say, "OK, we want statutory powers right across the range of NICS", but the bottom line is that you are still talking about an under-resourced organisation. We could have x amount of powers, but unless you have the resourcing, leadership, governance and responsibility across the whole of NICS to, for example, deliver on the people strategy, you are left sitting with x amount of powers without all of that happening.

There have been quite a lot of blockages to getting things moving in the Civil Service. Without the transformation agenda, our powers would not work so well. You need that framework. Moreover, if you have statutory powers, there is an obligation — carrot and stick — for collaboration, partnership work and a sustained piece of collaborative work across all organisations. Therefore, increasing statutory powers alone will not make a safe, efficient and effective service.

Mr Muir: Thank you for that. Recommendation 1.3 of the report states:

"There should be absolute clarity on who will oversee the transformation required and it is imperative that this is sufficiently resourced."

Over the past year, during the pandemic, we have seen amazing work being done by civil servants to support people and businesses. I greatly appreciate that. People have gone above and beyond. However, one of the issues with the recovery is that the capacity and capability of the Civil Service is one of the major hindrances to achieving what we need to for society, businesses and communities to recover as we come out of COVID-19. The report that we are considering will have a massive impact on the day-to-day lives of many people across Northern Ireland. It says:

"There should be absolute clarity on who will oversee the transformation required".

Do you know who will oversee it or who is overseeing it at the moment? I am not inspired by who is overseeing it.

Ms Toner: Well, we know the structure of the Civil Service at the minute. The report was published at a time of crisis from COVID and Brexit. There was unprecedented demand on Departments, and they had to refocus their priorities and resources. There were urgent competing demands. We know the structure of the Senior Civil Service. Proposals have been put forward, although I cannot really talk about that end of it at the minute. Commissioners agree in principle with the recommendations. However, our role is to maintain the merit principle throughout. Planning is key, because it is difficult to monitor and manage performance if you have not got a plan to manage towards.

We support the strong leadership and the governance collective commitment and the reliance on all Departments to play their role, not just, as I said before, the Department of Finance and NICS HR. NICS HR should be adequately prioritised in the organisation, and the people strategy should be at the top of the agenda. Once those are in place, I think that we, as an organisation, can look at our statutory powers or do that in parallel. However, one cannot really happen or be effective without the other.

Mr Muir: I appreciate that. The thing is that those issues existed before the pandemic; they have been systemic for years. I have the impression that the Civil Service Commissioners are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. As we go through the inquiry, I am not hearing that someone is leading or driving the change or that it is a collaborative effort. I am hearing that the report has come through and that there are recommendations, but I am not inspired about the work being done to implement them.

For example, have the commissioners decided to take on some of the recommendations and work towards implementation?

Ms Toner: I think I have been clear that with our statutory responsibility at the minute, the Civil Service has a very tight remit with regard to a meritorious recruitment process. We are only one part of a large organisation, an arm's-length body set aside with independence to look at the recruitment processes and make sure that the system is safe and meritorious.

In lots of parts there have been very few breaches of the processes compared with some areas, so I would challenge your criticism of us being part of the problem. We have a small team with a small amount of resources, at a time when money is going to get even tighter, allocating that to the right people in the right places.

Our job is quite focused, and you still need a safeguard in the legal background and a safe framework. No matter what the transformation agenda, you still need that core of the safeguarding in how that looks, in a politically divided part of the world.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Prior to his retirement, we had the former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, now Sir David Sterling, in front of the Committee. One thing that shocked the Committee was the authority that he did not have in terms of the Civil Service collectively. We assumed that the permanent secretaries reported in and that he had the authority at the top that rests and resides with, for example, the head of the Civil Service in Scotland.

What is the commissioners' view on that authority, power and responsibility being given to the new head of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland?

Ms Toner: I would not want to comment on the new recruitment. It is a live process, so I do not really want to go there.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I am not asking you to comment on candidates; I am simply asking you to comment on that responsibility.

Ms Toner: Whatever process is in place, I am going to take us back to our remit. This is owned by the Civil Service. We will examine that and see if it is a meritorious process — I am sorry to keep coming back to that — and make sure that what it looks like is in the public interest. It seems that it is an opportunity missed, I suppose, in looking at where people have decision-making power to take a transformation agenda forward. That would be a view. You need to look at how people got the —

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): With respect, I am not commenting on the individuals or their respective merits.

Ms Toner: OK.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I am commenting on the fact that we identified, prior to this work commencing, in a session early last year, the problem whereby there was not that collective responsibility at the top of the Civil Service by the head of the Civil Service. He did not have the responsibility that applies to the head of the Civil Service in Scotland. If that is not addressed, that will continue to be a problem in the Northern Ireland Civil Service that does not apply in another part of the Kingdom, namely our closest neighbour, Scotland. That absolutely needs to be addressed, and if it is not addressed, it will be an opportunity missed and be something from which the Civil Service will continue to suffer.

Ms Toner: Every Civil Service, especially in a transformation agenda, should look at models around the world and those nearest to them and see what would be appropriate. It is also about decision-making above that, what that looks like and what is fit for purpose.

Mr Beggs: Deirdre, thanks for your evidence. You said that the role of the commissioners was to monitor and influence improvements in the recruitment process. However, we have seen vacancy rates double over the past couple of years, agency rates double, and significant levels of temporary promotions. Who is responsible for that?

Ms Toner: We are not responsible for the recruitment process —

Mr Beggs: I asked who is.

Ms Toner: OK. The Civil Service is responsible for its management and control, and the procedures it puts forward. It lies with Departments and the Civil Service to implement the processes and procedures they adopt, and management and control. Our job is to make sure that the system has merit. We look at the exemptions under our regulations when they come forward with different areas, but our role and what we can do on that is quite tight. If there has been underinvestment in a Civil Service that is undergoing transformation, the leadership and governance across that will be symptomatic of the lack of investment in the structure.

Mr Beggs: I struggle to understand how the system works. We have the commissioners, the Civil Service board and then the permanent secretaries. Who is responsible for the mess? Who is responsible for implementing change and getting sensible arrangements so that vacancies can be filled?

Ms Toner: Responsibility for management and control across NICS lies with the teams in Departments and the head of the Civil Service.

Mr Beggs: He has no powers. He has no authority.

Ms Toner: OK, but I am saying that each Department has responsibility for its area of work, and it is not just up to NICS HR or ALBs like us to look at that. We are only one part of this, but we can ensure that we monitor that and that we do that well. We audit the processes under that remit, and if we find gaps following an audit, we advise NICS HR on what those look like. Our stakeholder is NICS HR and, in general, NICS. Responsibility for management, control and decision-making across a range of different areas lies with the Civil Service.

Mr Beggs: Have you made any recent recommendations to NICS HR, which you just talked about, to improve the system?

Ms Toner: We have. We get information from it to say what it is proposing on, for example, a permanent secretary group.

Mr Beggs: What are your recommendations? Can a copy of those be forwarded to us so that we are aware of your influence?

Ms Toner: I can send on any information that we can give you on that. I take you back to our remit: we have to look at merit to ensure that the best person is there for the job. That is our job, and that is the scope of what we do. We put in processes in that way. We are not responsible for the broad range of services that are provided by the Civil Service. That is a complex mix of different areas, with different resourcing, different priorities and different plans in place.

Mr Beggs: You mentioned that you are responsible for the merit process and for ensuring that the best person is appointed. However, in many cases, we have become aware of the generalist being favoured by the system over someone with detailed knowledge. The renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme is a classic example: people were put into positions for which they did not have the necessary skills to carry out the role effectively. How is that being addressed to ensure that people are not put into a role for which they do not have the necessary skills, experience or training to carry that out effectively?

Ms Toner: I would say that looking at the job roles is a very good move. There are 24 different occupations across the Civil Service. Looking at the job roles will help Departments to decide what they need and help them to plan for the big-ticket areas that they will need to deal with the next five or 10 years. I agree that the generalist area is a difficult one. Maybe it was sufficient for a particular era, but we really need to look at what each job role can do. You are talking about top economists and top project managers. All of those areas probably need investment and tightened up, right across the whole organisation.

Mr Beggs: Is that an area that you have identified and worked on since coming into your role?

Ms Toner: We have discussed that with NICS HR, and it has put forward what it was doing. There are crisis areas where that has not happened.

Mr Beggs: You indicated that you have a limited team. There are three commissioners. How many staff are behind you?

Ms Toner: We have five part-time staff.

Mr Beggs: OK. You said that you have to chair all external senior appointments to the Civil Service.

Ms Toner: Grade 5 and above, yes.

Mr Beggs: How many appointment processes are there a year? Do you really need to be involved in every one of them?

Ms Toner: If you are talking about the GB commission, it is involved in internal senior appointments as well as external ones. That is another role that it appoints. Yes, we are involved in them. There have been 75 external appointments in the last 18 months. We chair those to make sure that the process at grade 5 and above is meritorious, as well as everything from the candidate information booklet right through to the appointment and the four-stage process. As well —

Mr Beggs: Is grade 5 the appropriate level? Should it be at a higher or lower level?

Ms Toner: It is comparative to GB. Grade 5 and above is where there is substantive leadership and governance in the organisation, so grade 5 and above is what is in the code.

Mr Beggs: What is the typical length of time to go through the appointment process for the Senior Civil Service? Can you advise how many temporary appointments there are at present?

Ms Toner: I cannot. I will get the information to you on the number of temporary appointments; I can send that to the Committee. What was the first part of your question? Sorry.

Mr Beggs: It was the length of time that it takes to make an appointment. Is the process satisfactory? I know that in the world of business, you cannot afford to wait —

Ms Toner: No.

Mr Beggs: — and need to get the job filled and keep moving forward. How long does a typical appointment process take?

Ms Toner: Around three months. I know that the report stated that some appointments took longer, but that was in another big competition.

We agree with the point about the need for timeliness in appointments, but, as I said before, comparisons with the private sector are maybe not overly fair. Quite a lot of public money is involved, and you would be hauled over the coals if you did not check all the different areas. Sometimes the public service also requires security clearance. We also have a litigious society, so we have to make sure that the panels and the representation on the panels are appropriate and the testing and interviews are appropriate for the jobs; all of that. Sometimes we have to be more careful in the public service.

I am not defending it, but a three-month turnaround for a senior leadership programme is not unreasonable.

Mr Beggs: Would you accept that private companies are subjected to the same rigours of the law on merit —?

Ms Toner: They are subject to the main equality law and the rigours of the law there, but, sometimes, the public service has to wait on budget coming through for particular posts, and you may need to ring-fence funding. From the start of the process, money must be identified for a post and you must make sure that whatever part of the public money is allocated is used for the post and get all of the testing, interviews and recruitment panels together to make sure that there is a meritorious process. That is owned by the Civil Service, not by us.

Mr Beggs: I am asking you about the process. You seem to be defending a three-month-plus process.

Ms Toner: No, I am not defending it. When you have a senior —. Somebody will have to give notice to an external or internal employer if they are appointed. That three-month period includes that notice.

It is not unreasonable at that level. I agree that the report has identified areas, but that is a management and control issue for the Northern Ireland Civil Service. We have advised it on what good practice would look like.

Mr Beggs: Do you accept that, if it takes too long, good candidates will be picked by another employer?

Ms Toner: I understand and totally accept that. Yes.

Mr Beggs: Thank you.

Mr O'Toole: Ms Toner, thank you for giving us evidence.

I want to check a couple of basic points. Would it be fair to say that your view is that the legislation that governs the GB Civil Service Commissioners allows them to take a more strategic role in HR policy?

Ms Toner: They have different legislation that allows them to work across a range of areas. That is not unfeasible here, but it would require a change of legislation to allow us to support those areas more strategically. They deal with complaints and have a larger audit function. They are a secretariat for a range of areas and can have a joined-up approach to some of the areas as well. We have a very tight remit as a result of the 1999 order. There would need to be a significant change there.

Mr O'Toole: Tell me if I am placing you in an invidious position, but would you like to see commissioners being given more legal authority to help spearhead change or take a more strategic role?

Ms Toner: Yes, you could, but, again, it would be a case of what are the powers are and what resources are available to do that. Alongside that, I keep coming back to the point that the transformation agenda and the leadership in NICS would need to be there, otherwise we will be left with statutory powers that we cannot —. There are different systems in place in GB, for example. If they are looking at recruitment areas across a range of mechanisms outside the competence-based process, the GB commission can support that and look at training and different areas. Yes, there is a role for more functions for us. We could have more commissioners and could have commissioners working across different areas to look at equality, leadership, governance and all of that, but, based on our role at the minute, it is tight. It would have to be a meritorious process, and it is the role of the commission to look at that.

Mr O'Toole: Do you think that the NIAO placed too much of an emphasis on your role, given the legislative limitations that you talked about? The NIAO mentions you in its report at several points and mentions you having quite a large role, from its perspective, in driving change. Do you think that it has overemphasised that?

Ms Toner: No, I think that the point was about collaboration and partnership and about looking at best practice and at the commission working with NICS HR, or NICS HR working with us. There are examples. We work closely with the NICS, but it is a big organisation with a transformation agenda that has not happened. We have agreed that the report substantively reflects our views. We are mentioned three or four times throughout the report, but we have no opposition to working in partnership or looking at what powers may be needed to work in partnership and in a collaborative way.

Mr O'Toole: If I am understanding you correctly, you are saying that, in order to do the kinds of strategic things that the report says directly — or, at least, implies fairly heavily — you should be doing, there would need to be change to the legislation on which your organisation is based. A lot of that is about process.

Deirdre, I will take you back to the broad picture, because the picture of the Northern Ireland Civil Service that is painted by the NIAO report is of one that is structurally extremely flawed, that is, broadly, too old and too generalist and is not high-performing. Some things came out in the RHI debacle, but, in addition, there are, frankly, fairly big fundamental cracks in the edifice of NICS. Do you agree that it is fairly fundamentally flawed and needs a pretty serious overhaul?

Ms Toner: "Fundamentally flawed" is not —. I would rather be specific and say that the organisation needs strong leadership, governance and collective commitment and that departmental responsibility is needed for the transformation agenda and not just sitting with one Department. NICS HR, in terms of recruitment and practice, is an area that I can talk about, and the people strategy needs legs, needs resources and needs to build up leadership and governance at a range of levels in the organisation. It is a NICS responsibility to do that, and we can sit as one part of lots of organisations that can advise on what that would look like. The Civil Service Commissioners are in a fairly unique position in that we can see an awful lot of the recruitment issues across the organisation, and we know the culture, the litigious end of it and the legal aspects. There is scope for us to work with them to see what that looks like and to get in early on policy development. They are not a finished article, but if new policies and new procedures are being developed, we can look at how the commissioners can be involved and can advise in some of those areas.

Mr O'Toole: Most of what you said is fair enough, but I want to probe a little bit. When I talked about fundamental flaws, you came back and said that what is needed is "strong leadership" and a few other phrases. Surely those things are needed at any point in any organisation. Those are always good prescriptions for organisations, but the reason I pressed you on the point about fundamental flaws is simply that the report seems to indicate fairly significant issues that need to be addressed. One of the issues that it would be useful to get your view on — it came up less directly in the NIAO report and more in other evidence that we have taken — is the relative lack of inward recruitment to the senior reaches of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Bluntly, it tends to be quite parochial and to recruit from within, and there might be a problem with recruiting senior staff externally.

First, do you think that there is a problem there? Do you think that senior roles in the Northern Ireland Civil Service are attractive enough to people in the private sector here or elsewhere or, indeed, in Whitehall, Dublin or Edinburgh? Secondly, do you think that there are problems with how attractive —. Tell me if you think that I am asking questions outwith your role as a Civil Service Commissioner; I am interested in your view anyway. Do you think that there is a problem with graduate recruitment? That has come up repeatedly. Those are my two questions: do you think that there is enough external recruitment or that it is attractive enough to good, external candidates for roles at grade 5 and above; and what are your views on graduate recruitment?

Ms Toner: OK. There was quite a lot there. Graduate recruitment is a bit like the housing market: you need first-time buyers, and you need new blood in an organisation. There is no doubt about that. Apprenticeship or graduate schemes provide the lifeblood to organisations. You also need to develop governance and leadership skills at a middle-management level. There is an ageing workforce — I think that 48% are over 50 — and there are workforce planning problems with that, and different problems with the EU, Brexit and COVID — all of those — are coming up for which staff need specific skills.

There is also looking outside the organisation. For example, if you are talking about the Strategic Investment Board (SIB), or whatever, which is where specialist skills are recruited from, the question is why those are not within the Civil Service as well and why those specific roles are not within the organisation.

The bottom end and top end of the organisation need investment, as does middle management. There are also all sorts of cultural issues in a large organisation with 22,000 or 23,000 employees.

You need to separate the organisation's — each Department's — responsibilities from the HR component. A safe, productive HR system would be one in which the operational or problem-solving end is left to those who are responsible for it and HR is slick and fit for purpose.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I think that we have lost all our members who are joining us remotely. They seem to be having conversations among themselves. Can you hear us at all?

[Pause.]

They are all having a good laugh; I can tell you that [Laughter.]

Ms Toner: OK.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): We will try to re-establish the link.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. Mr O'Toole, can you hear us?

[Pause.]

Mr Muir: It is still being broadcast, and they could hear the conversations among us.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): We could not, but anyway. Mr O'Toole, can you hear me?

[Pause.]

Can anybody who is joining us remotely hear me? This is like a seance.

[Long Pause.]

OK. We will have to adjourn until we can re-establish links. If we just take a moment's break.

Mr O'Toole: I can hear you now, Chair.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You can hear me now?

Mr O'Toole: Yes. I can hear you now.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): The floor is yours, for a short time.

Ms Toner: Maybe you would repeat the question.

Mr O'Toole: Sorry; my question was long-winded enough. Deirdre, I will repeat the two questions that I asked you, hopefully, in brief. The first was about your views on whether there should be more external recruitment to the Senior Civil Service and the second was about whether there needs to be an overhaul of graduate recruitment and possibly a replacement of the fast stream, which was discontinued.

Ms Toner: Obviously, you did not hear the answer. That is fine. The issues with external recruitment at senior level are investment and competition with the private sector. If you need specialist people in the organisation, you will have to look at the top end of what the packages and terms and conditions look like for the senior staff in that area. If you were talking about a grade 5 applying, it could be said that a lot of internal people were appointed, but, in actual fact, if you looked at that level outside the organisation, you would see that they were probably getting a lot more in a different package. There is something to be done on levelling the playing field, should it be needed, maybe in partnership with other organisations as well.

I said that graduate recruitment is like the housing market: you need new blood and new houses for first-time buyers at the start. That means having either a graduate or an apprenticeship programme using the exceptions in order to allow a range of groups to come in and a change of societal areas to be reflected at different levels in the organisation. If there are people with disabilities or equality issues, we need to look at where there is diversity in the organisation and where we will have a range of people. There was a recent competition. I think that one third were external, so it was refreshing to see that at a lower level.

There is also a need to look at middle management and to create governance and leadership there. As I say, 48% of people at that level are over 50. The workforce planning and people strategy are very important to what that level looks like. That means planning for that and not just having to react through temporary employment, contracts being overextended or whatever. They are all symptomatic of the solid planning that is needed at cross-departmental level, in business cases and in job roles that are specific to those areas.

Mr O'Toole: Those are profound issues. The questions about age — I am not disputing the hard work of civil servants, particularly in the past year — are fairly dramatic.

Can I ask one final question, Chair? Deirdre, you can say whether you think that this issue is outside your remit; I suspect that you will. One stark piece of information is that civil servants are marked, using two boxes, as either "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory", which seems extraordinary. Are you aware of that? Do the Civil Service Commissioners look at that? I know that that is about not recruitment but performance management, but it does not seem to be conducive to a modern or a well-run workforce to have two boxes.

Ms Toner: That is outside our remit, but I agree that two boxes do not make a performance appraisal. In order to manage performance, you need plans, targets and indicators that areas are working. A performance appraisal must take account of an awful lot of those markers for the individual, the Department and the organisation. It is outside our remit, I am afraid, but that is my comment.

Mr O'Toole: If I may, I will squeeze in one brief final question really quickly, Chair. From your perspective, since the report was published, has the lack of a HOCS being in place been a problem for getting action or a reform programme agreed?

Ms Toner: There is a whole range of areas to consider, not just those where a HOCS is concerned. We have an interim HOCS at the minute. That is a matter for the Civil Service. The interim HOCS is taking parts of the agenda forward. I will have to leave that there at this stage. However, a range of areas has brought us to that situation, not just whether there is a HOCS or an interim HOCS.

Mr Boylan: Deirdre, would you say that the voluntary exit scheme has caused some of the major problems that we now have in the system? That is clearly outlined in the Audit Office report. Do you have an opinion on that?

Ms Toner: I can have an opinion on voluntary exit schemes generally. When planning voluntary exit schemes, it is hard to determine who goes and who puts themselves in the mix. What are the areas where we need specialist roles, do we need to lose people there and do we need to gain people in other areas? It is not part of my remit, but a voluntary exit scheme is fairly global in its approach. It is like putting 7% of cuts across everything. You have to look at the impact of it and make more plans and more people plans. Workforce planning is essential in a big organisation like the NICS. Voluntary exit schemes can sometimes leave you without the right people, and organisational memory can go. That is a comment on voluntary exit schemes generally.

Mr Boylan: I asked that in the context of what is a pretty damning report. It is OK putting in a grade 5, and your responsibility is for that grade and above, but, if the baseline is not right, it does not matter who you put in. I asked the question in that context. Do you feel that the system is working or is not working at the minute? What are your views on that?

Ms Toner: The system has a lot of gaps, and voluntary exit schemes need to be well-thought-out. That is a NICS management-and-control issue at the minute, not a Civil Service Commissioners remit or responsibility. I can comment on it, but it is not within our remit.

Mr Boylan: I appreciate that, but your remit is to put people in place. You have to have an overall view on or look at who you are putting in and how they are going to address the problems that lie in the system. Is that a fair comment?

Ms Toner: It is a fair comment. We are part of chairing the process and of making sure that appointments at grade 5 and above are meritorious and that the best person for the job in that recruitment process is appointed.

Mr Boylan: I see it all as one big problem. I think that, from the very start, the workforce model is not correct, and I appreciate your role. There has to be some wider thinking about everybody's wider responsibility in all that.

The report mentions the time that competitions take and the focus on skills. Does your role hold up any of that recruitment process?

Ms Toner: We have what is called an article 6 process. The recruitment process belongs to the Civil Service, so whatever recruitment process it puts in place, we in the commission, with the small team that we have, make sure that it is meritorious. Recently, in my term of office, I have taken it to the point where we sign it off very quickly. There were delays in the system, although not necessarily with the Civil Service Commissioners. We have a two-day and a one-day turnaround as soon as paperwork hits our desk, and we have a commitment to that. That is one part of the process.

That said, if a commissioner is in the room, it makes sense to me that they sign off on that part of the process so that it can be slicker and no less meritorious or no less well-governed. That is a new process that has come in since September under my watch.

Mr Boylan: Is your role in any way an ombudsman-type role with audit or anything else that looks at other organisations?

Ms Toner: No, our role as Civil Service Commissioners is very tightly defined in the 1999 order under the Good Friday Agreement. Even in GB, that is quite tight. No, it does not reflect an ombudsman's role.

Mr Boylan: OK. Finally, can you outline any barriers to working with NICS?

Ms Toner: NICS HR is our biggest stakeholder anywhere. There is a lot happening with underinvestment and jobs that have to be done because of COVID and Brexit, and I think that a lot of resources had to be deployed. I can see the frustrations of NICS HR in trying to have business as usual while attempting to reform what they do. We meet NICS HR as much as we can. As I said, we have weekly and monthly engagement meetings with the permanent secretaries and their senior team to advise them when they seek advice on different areas.

As far as that is concerned, we do not see a barrier, as such; I see an organisation that needs transformation and change. We would like to see an awful lot more external recruitment, for example. Sometimes there are practices and procedures that do not see the benefit in that. We are happy to look at all the different types of programmes in the context of the meritorious process and ask, "Would that work?" A range of meritorious and fit-for-purpose recruitment practices from across the world could be used. It would be good to see a lot of those being brought in to play.

Mr Boylan: Chair, Deirdre keeps going back to resources. Clearly, there were problems in the system. You then had the voluntary exit scheme. The service does not seem to have recovered. Is that a fair assessment? You keep going back to resources, Deirdre, but, clearly, there have been a lot of problems for a number of years. The VES did not help; the position has not recovered yet.

Ms Toner: When I say "resources", I mean resources in terms of not just money but the training, leading and capability skills that we need at the bottom, middle and top of the organisation in order to be able to create a sustainable Civil Service that is fit for purpose in the areas that we need to look at now and in the emerging ones. We are only at the start of the challenging phase, yet the organisation needs to look at the roles that it is developing and evaluate whether they are fit for purpose. Resources also mean the skills that people have; it is not just about the financial end of it. It is also about having a willingness to work across Departments to make that happen. That responsibility sits in that area.

Mr McHugh: Tá fáilte romhat, a Dheirdre. You are very welcome here — or there, rather; I am 100 miles or more away from you.

You referred to resources for transformational change and the like. Effectively, you were talking about financial resources at one stage. Where should that funding go? Are we talking about the commission or the Civil Service? Is there a danger that it could end up in silos, even in the Civil Service?

Ms Toner: I am speaking about the Civil Service. As I said, we could be given resources for extra reach or whatever, but the organisation that you are working with and trying to improve may not have investment at various levels between money, capability, capacity and skilled areas. It is about having money in the right places; money in terms of leadership development and looking at all the areas. Look at the symptoms: the lack of planning, the shorter-term contracts and all those areas. What is making that happen?

It is an NICS problem. We can agree that, from the outside looking in, those issues are there, but they need to be prioritised across the Departments. Each of the areas needs to see what their responsibility is and to be able to allocate resources to it. One Department might need more than another. NICS HR, for example, should be a higher priority. If you have nearly 23,000 staff, resources are needed to equip the system with an appropriate function.

Mr McHugh: That is the point that I was attempting to get at. NICS HR and/or other areas should be targeted in order to ensure that resources are deployed in a way that means that they will be effective.

Ms Toner: Sorry, what was the question there? Were you just agreeing with me?

Mr McHugh: I am agreeing with you. You mentioned leadership in NICS HR. Are there any other areas in the various Departments of the Civil Service that you think should be targeted?

Ms Toner: Without stepping on the toes of permanent secretaries about what they should be doing, I will say that they should be looking at best practice around the world and at what a modern workforce that is fit for the challenges ahead should consider. In one Department, that might mean people going in at one level, and in another, it might mean leadership change or more young people. It depends on each Department. I am not in charge of that, and nor should I be. I am just saying that a range of areas need to be addressed, and that is not undoable.

Mr McHugh: You said that you maintain relationships with NICS HR, the permanent secretary and somebody else — I did not pick up who that is — in order to ensure that the recruitment process is fair. In the event of you challenging, how enforceable is that?

Ms Toner: Do you mean if I challenge that process if I feel that something is unfair?

Mr McHugh: Yes. How enforceable is that?

Ms Toner: We have a four-stage process. If we feel that the recruitment process is not meritorious, under our legislation, we can stop that part of the process. There are points in the process where we can say, "Listen — ." We are involved even at the very start of the recruitment process in what a candidate information booklet looks like. You are there with that hat on, in that room, to look at the process and say, "OK, is this fair? Is this getting the right skills for the job? Is it going to be weighted towards one or the other or one person or one field or the other?" You can get a sense of the room from that process. As the four stages are gone through, you are able to see the skills and abilities that are there. If we feel that something is not quite right, from the panel right through, we can stop the process and try to solve with them what it looks like and ask why the problem occurred.

Mr McHugh: Thank you, that is exactly what I wanted — a wee bit of clarity — because I was not sure to what extent you had authority in that and how enforceable it is.

Mr Harvey: Thank you, Ms Toner. What do you consider to be the most important aspects of your role and responsibilities?

Ms Toner: The most important part is having public confidence in the merit process and making sure that, whatever process NICS adopts in its recruitment practices, everybody who can apply has an equal chance of getting the job. It is about getting the best person in the best place in the job. That, in essence, is what we try to do.

It is also about having fair play, asking whether the legal end of the range of services that are available makes sense to us and making sure of the processes so that we can examine them. We develop the code on that basis, which is tied to NICS recruitment processes and its manual or whatever. That informs our code, which will try to ensure, as far as possible, that the NICS systems are meritorious.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Can I return, if you do not mind, to the leadership of the Northern Ireland Civil Service? In the lines of accountability between you and the Civil Service, are you convinced that the appropriate power and authority are there to ensure that the Civil Service is properly scrutinised?

Ms Toner: A commissioner's role is very specific and has a very tight remit. Whatever processes are put forward to us, our job, within our regulatory role, is to see whether they are meritorious. It is a very tight process. Our job is not to comment on whether a Civil Service position is fit for purpose; it is to comment only on the recruitment process.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Do you have the power and authority in legislation to develop your role or responsibilities, for example, or is it very tight? Do you feel hamstrung in that context?

Ms Toner: It is tight. There would be opportunities for a commission with more resources and a broader base of commissioners to look at different areas.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Right, OK. Other members made reference to this, but you referred to resource a number of times. There are three of you, and you have five part-time staff. When you continually refer to resource, are you saying that you do not have enough resource to carry out your functions?

Ms Toner: When I talk about resources, in the main, it is to do with the Civil Service. A range of different areas is in your capacity and capability to report on. There are wide-ranging areas. This issue is twofold. There is that resource area that needs invested in for the transformation agenda. Putting resources on us without that agenda happening will leave us with an imbalance. Can you see that?

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Yes. OK. So, most of the time, you are referring to the Civil Service. What I am asking you is this: have you enough resource for the three commissioners and your five part-time staff to carry out the functions that you have been appointed to carry out?

Ms Toner: As it stands, we have enough resources to do that under the statute.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. This is a question that we can put to Mr Watmore as well. Do the commissioners on the mainland work at Westminster? Do the GB commissioners that you talk about work to Westminster, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly, or are they one body that will go in terms of the Civil Services that are required there?

Ms Toner: Could you repeat that?

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): What I mean is this: you are specific to the Northern Ireland Civil Service. There is the Imperial Civil Service, the Scottish Civil Service and whatever. How does the commission work on the mainland?

Ms Toner: It covers Scotland and Wales. It is tied to the Cabinet Office. We are an arm's length-body of the Northern Ireland Office.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Does that mean not England, not Westminster, not the London Assembly but just Scotland and Wales?

Ms Toner: Scotland, Wales and England.

Ms Toner: Yes: GB.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. The Northern Ireland Civil Service has something like 350 staff employed in HR, plus other specialised services are bought in. Do you not believe that that is enough?

Ms Toner: You can have numbers in an organisation, but you need to look at what the roles, scope, capacity and capability are in it. NICS HR was centralised during the reform of parts of the Civil Service. A people strategy was then put on top of that, and a series of blockages for that was put in place. Numbers do not necessarily mean that the level of people or the skills base that you need is there. In an organisation, you sometimes have HR hoovering up an awful lot of decisions that actually belong to the operational side. A HR department should use its resources appropriately to develop a slick HR function.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I am looking at it as if it were a business. If you have 350 people employed in HR, and you then have to buy in extra services, there is clearly an issue. This is the line of questioning that we took when the head of HR and the permanent secretary were in front of the Committee: why are you not bringing more people into HR permanently as opposed to buying in additional services from the private sector? Surely that would be much more cost-effective.

Ms Toner: I agree.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): In the regional government here, there is a culture of simply buying in services. As Mr Hilditch mentioned, that does not necessarily provide value for money. In many cases, it is not value for money; it is the reverse. Agency workers are also brought in. That may not be cost-effective and does not necessarily bring in the levels of skill, knowledge and expertise that are required.

Ms Toner: Yes. HR is one area of the Civil Service. The same thing happens across other areas. I agree that it is better to have organisational memory, skills and ability in an organisation.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I would like to return to the head of the Civil Service, because we have identified that as a huge problem in the Civil Service. I know that we have an acting head of the Civil Service at the moment, and I will not lead you into the recruitment process for that. I simply make the point again that we find it incredible that the powers do not reside, as they should, with the head of the Civil Service when they bring together all the permanent secretaries at board level or whatever. You talked about strong leadership and culture in your answers to members' questions. We are concerned that there is not strong leadership, because that void is there. We are also concerned about the culture.

This mandate comes to an end next year. For three of the five years of the mandate, the institutions were suspended. The head of the Civil Service had enormous power for those three years. During those three years, that head of the Civil Service did not have the power to carry out a function of government that we, as Assembly Members, and the public would think that they did. That cannot be allowed to happen again. When this report and review are completed, that anomaly will need to be addressed. It simply cannot continue. It is not acceptable. That is the view of the Committee from the evidence that it has received and the positions that members have taken.

I am not aware of any other member having other questions. Mr Donnelly and Mr Stevenson, do you have anything that you want to ask or any points that you want to make?

Mr Kieran Donnelly (Northern Ireland Audit Office): No, I have no points at this stage.

Mr Stuart Stevenson (Department of Finance): I have no points to raise, Chair. Thank you.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Thank you very much. Thank you very much for your time and your candour this afternoon. It is very much appreciated. Good afternoon.

Ms Toner: OK. Thank you very much. It was nice to meet you.

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