Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 54 - 59)

WEDNESDAY 4 NOVEMBER 1998

MR JACKIE FITZSIMONS, MR JOSEPH MARTIN, MRS HELEN MCCLENAGHAN, MR GILBERT IRWIN, MR JOHN MCCULLOUGH and MR MALACHY O'LOANE

Chairman

  54.  It is a very great pleasure to have the opportunity of examining you again. It is, I think, a compliment, though conceivably an inconvenient compliment, which the Committee has not paid to any other witnesses, that we were not able to complete the examination on the previous occasion. We were very anxious that we should do so. I am sorry that this is an inconvenient moment in terms of the chronology of the educational year, but we are very appreciative that you have been able to come back and I know a number of my colleagues have questions they want to ask in order to round off the examination we did last time. I will not go back over the ground rules which we set on that occasion because I think they are broadly familiar, but I am conscious that one of the reasons we needed to have a second session was because, admirably, there were a number of questions on which all of you wished to express an opinion and I realise that may well happen again on this occasion. I need to be reminded what arrangement we have for who decides who is going to answer?
  (Mr Martin)  Chairman, in the absence of our previous Chairman who is on holiday at the moment, I am lead spokesperson and I will co-ordinate our responses.

  55.  Having asked the question in the way that I did I perhaps ought to add a coda that there is no need for everybody to feel that they need to answer each of the questions. We will trust your judgment as to who should come in on what. Although this is the resumption of a match which we had previously to abandon, I do not know if there is anything you want to say at the start of the proceedings on this occasion or whether you will be quite happy for us to go straight into questions?
  (Mr Martin)  Chairman, thank you for your welcome. There were one or two issues which were raised by the Northern Ireland Audit Office with the Department of Education. I do not know if you have been made aware of these, but if you feel it is appropriate I would be happy to make a formal statement on them just to set the record straight. If you wish to do that, I will continue, but we are happy to respond through the Department of Education to the Northern Ireland Audit Office if you so wish.

  56.  Let me just test the opinion of the Committee. How long an exercise would that be?
  (Mr Martin)  About two to three minutes, Chairman.

  57.  Well I think if it is going to be two to three minutes and it is going to be in the record hereafter, I think it would be helpful if you did allude to them?
  (Mr Martin)  Thank you. Chairman, we have two members who were not here the last time. We have Mr O'Loane as an additional witness and we have Mr Irwin instead of Mr Topping. Reference was made by us on the previous occasion to the Northern Ireland Audit Office report as a draft report and the NIAO, I understand, has raised this with the Department of Education. I want to say that while the version copied to the Boards on 24 June was in final draft form, the report was in fact laid before the House of Commons on 7 July, although it was not published until 26 August. I wish to indicate that the formal status of the report was not clear to us on 22 July but there was no intention whatsoever on our part to undermine its status by referring to it as a draft. I want to acknowledge the final status of that report and to advise that its findings and recommendations are now under consideration by the Boards. The second point is that reference was made in three different paragraphs of our evidence to the report having been drawn up about two years ago. The NIAO has raised this also with the Department of Education. It emphasised that the field work for the report was completed during 1997/1998, largely using data from the latest full year available, i.e. 1996/1997. So it was inaccurate for us to describe the report as two years old and our references were made in the context of the fact that the statements sampled dated from 1994-1996. The key issues such as delays in statementing which were raised by the Audit Committee, and indeed by yourselves, related to circumstances before the phased implementation of the Special Education Needs legislation, and this legislation and the Code of Practice now provide a procedural and timed framework within which assessment can take place. I just wanted to make this formal statement to ensure that we were not misleading anyone in respect of these issues.

Chairman:  Thank you very much and I think it was admirable that you did it in the way that you did. Mr Hesford?

Mr Hesford:  Chairman, may I seek the Committee's views? My questions were questions covering Mr Martins statement which has just been made therefore I do not propose now to go forward with my questions.

Chairman:  As you have the floor, are there any other questions you would like to ask?

Mr Hesford:  No, thank you, Chair.

Chairman:  Well, Mr Martin has done an admirable job of reducing the amount of cross examination.

Mr Grogan

  58.  Good afternoon. Just looking at the question of the resource allocation for statemented pupils between different Boards, how will the Boards address the need for appropriate benchmarking and monitoring performance, for example, when comparing unit costs?
  (Mr Martin)  Chairman, there are a number of recommendations in the Audit Committee report which relate to this. Since the last meeting of this Committee, the chief executives have jointly taken certain steps which we feel will begin to address them. We have set up a regional strategy group to be chaired by a senior education officer who will report to the chief executives. One of their main tasks, one of their terms of reference, will be to examine all the issues which were raised in the Northern Ireland Audit Office report and that particular issue was one of the major issues which was raised. So we will be asking the group to tackle this issue, to look at the apparent anomalies, to seek explanations where that is appropriate and then to take appropriate steps to try and ensure as far as possible that there is commonality in the approach to that.

  59.  Have you any idea yet where that may lead you or have you an open mind? Clearly it is important; the accuracy of the measurement of performance are absolutely crucial, are they not, in comparing the various performances of the various Boards. Do you have any further thoughts or are you content to leave it to that group at this stage?
  (Mr Martin)  It will be a broadly based group and they will call on expertise as needed. A key issue that is being addressed on the wider front in Northern Ireland at the moment is the issue of the introduction of accruals accounting. The new system of accruals accounting should give us the framework and the mechanism with which to tackle this issue because it will ensure that we have the best possible financial information, that we will be able to establish clearly defined unit costs and that we are comparing like with like. We hope that the introduction of accruals accounting, which is to take place in the new financial year, will be one means of helping us to address this.

Mr Grogan:  Thank you.


 
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