Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-113)


2 MARCH 2005

  Q100 Mr Davidson: No, that is not the case. It does not say that they welcome what you have done. It says that the NIAO welcomes the fact that you have got new objectives but that basically the way in which you are proposing to apply them is not adequate. What it says here is, "It should report on achievement against these objectives on an annual basis", which makes me assume that you had not been going to do that previously. Similarly, it says you should set associated targets which are "specific, measurable and time-bounded", which makes me assume that you were not going to do that anyway. Why were you not going to do that anyway when surely that is basic, fundamental management?

  Mr Haire: We had a set of objectives before but the Report emphasised that we had moved in 1997-1998 to ones where we had some qualifications. We have now emphasised once more the employment area. We have a range of objectives in this area and clearly we have been refining them as the scheme has developed.

  Q101 Mr Davidson: Yes, that is telling me what I knew already. Explain to me why, when you had these objectives, you had not already, before the Audit Office came along, set targets which were "specific, measurable and time-bounded". Why had you not done that before? What failing is there in your system that the Audit Office has to come and tell you to do such a basic part of management?

  Mr Haire: We had objectives before this time and clearly the Audit Office will—

  Q102 Mr Davidson: I know you had objectives but you did not have targets.

  Mr Haire: We had targets in all these areas and they want us to continue to refine and develop those.

  Q103 Mr Davidson: We will not get much further there. Can I ask the Northern Ireland Audit Office, and I think we have raised this point with you before, do you think that your Reports are sufficiently robust given the scale of difficulties you are facing? Would it be fair for me to say that it seems to me that you are pulling your punches in a number of areas here because you are taking into account just how poor the performance is and therefore being less robust than perhaps the department in the United Kingdom would be?

  Mr Dowdall: I do not think we consciously pull our punches. We do tend to confine ourselves to putting the facts before you and maybe not pushing on to the judgement that you might make on those facts because, with a report like this, we know it is coming before the committee and I see my primary job as being to give you the facts and you are quite capable of making the judgement on value for money beyond that.

  Q104 Mr Davidson: I think you understand the point that is being made. Mr Haire, if you look at paragraph 3.19, there has to be a recommendation made that you do benchmarking. I am quite frankly astonished that grown-ups in your position have not done some sort of benchmarking already. Presumably you are aware of benchmarking and the principle of seeking best practice elsewhere. Why have you not done any of it?

  Mr Haire: We have. The external evaluation which was being carried out was indeed giving us good comparative data here. We meet regularly, as I say, with the other authorities to look at this.[15]

  Q105 Mr Davidson: If you are doing all this why would the Audit Office have to make a recommendation saying that you carry out research to identify similar schemes and then benchmark? If you are doing all this you surely should have objected to the recommendation?

  Mr Haire: They are asking us here to formally benchmark at the end of this process and we accept that we need to do this more formally.

  Q106 Mr Davidson: Have you been doing it informally then? How do you informally benchmark?

  Mr Haire: The schemes are all subtly different in the process here.

  Q107 Mr Davidson: I can see where you are going. I used to chair education in Strathclyde and I was chair of further education and I used to get these reports about youth unemployment there, and I recognise the difference between an explanation and an alibi. The fact of subtle differences we accept, but I am not accepting that as a reason for not having done benchmarking. That type of response is inadequate. Could I turn to paragraph 4.1 about the objectives of the scheme originally? Can you clarify for me who it was that established the objectives of Jobskills originally? Why was it? Who was responsible for not having the attainment of jobs as an objective and who was it who was responsible for not having any objective to match training provision with the skills needs of the Northern Ireland economy? Was that done by yourselves?

  Mr Haire: At this time the scheme was run by an executive agency of the former department and it was done by the board of the Training and Employment Agency.

  Q108 Mr Davidson: Okay. I find it astonishing that the department in paragraph 4.2 says that you did not collect any data. Nobody in the governmental system in Northern Ireland collected any data apparently about the needs of the Northern Ireland economy in terms of future skills. How did something like that come to pass? What were people there doing? Did it never occur to anybody that that might have been a good idea?

  Mr Haire: At that time of very high unemployment that agency was looking more at broader skills. By 1998-99 the agency started to invest heavily in the skills monitoring process which is referred to in the report and started to build the task force on skills to get exactly that sort of data and in the light of that we set priority skills areas for training to make sure that match was effective there.

  Q109 Mr Davidson: That is a useful point. It does not actually respond to the question I asked but nonetheless is welcome in terms of clarification. If we can turn to paragraph 4.17 there is a useful point here, saying that 29% indicated that they did not use the skills learnt at all and a further 20% indicated that they only used the skills a little. When you had got that information did that cause changes to be made in the way in which the schemes were structured or were any lessons drawn from that analysis?

  Mr Haire: We have two pilot areas here to try and help especially the low achievers, the people on the Access scheme, to get into programmes where there is more choice in that area and into other schemes to try and help people at a higher level. During the last year we have focused our career service on the quality of information given to young people to help them make choices more effectively. We have also worked with our colleagues in the Department of Education so that young people of 14-16 are experiencing—

  Q110 Mr Davidson: I do not understand though how this relates to the question I asked you. What I actually asked you was that in paragraph 4.17 it says about halfway down, "29% indicated they did not use the skills learnt `at all' and a further 20% indicated they only used the skills `a little'". What I asked you was that once you had that information did you take any action to try and amend or restructure your scheme in order to address those identified difficulties?

  Mr Haire: The focus we had was to make sure that people who chose within the menu of that scheme were making informed decisions as they entered that scheme about the sorts of areas they wished to work in. At the same time, as I stressed before, the Key Skills in that area were giving broad generic skills which are relevant to a wide range of opportunities, including, obviously, dealing with the employers' need for numeracy and literacy skills.

  Q111 Mr Davidson: In those circumstances would I be right to think that if we get a report back from you in, say, another year or so, these figures should all be drastically improved because you will have corrected the imbalances?

  Mr Haire: Clearly I wish to see a better meeting of young people's expectations but on the other hand young people at this stage are changing their views on what they want and therefore a perfect match is unlikely.

  Q112 Mr Davidson: I understand the perfect match point, but what would you regard as acceptable figures in that regard? I accept that you would not get either of them down to nothing.

  Mr Haire: Clearly I would hope to see those below 20% in this process.

  Mr Davidson: One is at 20 so it would not be hard.

  Chairman: Mr Haire, do us a note. [16]

  Q113  Mr Jenkins: Could you also give us a note on recommendation 3.13 because it says that the department failed to monitor the achievement of Key Skills. Can you tell me why you failed to monitor and how you intend to do so please?

  Chairman: Do us a note on that, Mr Haire. [17]This is a good opportunity as there is a division to call an end to this inquiry. May I say that we are not convinced that all your training providers are performing satisfactorily. We are not convinced you are performing this programme adequately for young people in Northern Ireland, or indeed for industry in Northern Ireland. We are not convinced you have a sufficient grip on reforming irregularities. You can expect a very robust report and just because Stormont is suspended let no-one in Northern Ireland departments think that the light of parliamentary scrutiny will not shine on them. Thank you very much.

15   Note by Witness: Quarterly meetings are held between officials in England, Wales, Scotland, N Ireland and Republic of Ireland. Back

16   Ev 17 Back

17   Ev 17 Back

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