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Live Reporting

Tori Watson and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. Good afternoon

    Stormont

    The committee then enters private session for the remainder of proceedings.

    That concludes live coverage of events at Stormont for another week.

    We’ll be back from noon on Monday when MLAs will be back in the main chamber for a plenary session.

    Until then, have a great weekend, enjoy that lovely sunshine and stay safe.

  2. 'Lacked ambition and the pace of change has been much too slow'

    Rodney Allen turns to the second report being discussed, which relates to NI Direct and was published on 14 June 2019 “so this one is just over a year old”.

    Mr Allen says the report considers the NI’s civil service's performance “specifically in relation to what is a key digital project”.

    All public bodies are “increasing relying on digital transformation to deliver better public services” he adds.

    A £50m contract was agreed by the Department of Finance with BT back in October 2012, says the NI Audit Official, “to provide IT solutions, skills and capabilities to support the migration of NI public services online”.

    “Essentially, BT was to support NI pubic bodies move citizen services online,” he adds.

    “The Department of Finance was then responsible for the overall management of the project,” says Mr Allen, but adds that the management and delivery of individual projects lay with “individual departments”.

    “We found the department has revised the total estimated spend three times,” says Mr Allen adding that the project is “now expected to total £110m by October 2022” which is “more than double the anticipated costs”.

    The key findings showed that “progress had been made” in digital transformation, but says the efforts have “lacked ambition and the pace of change has been much too slow”.

    “We also found there was little evidence of public bodies working together or indeed with their counterparts in GB or elsewhere to identify innovative, transformational, citizen-centred solutions,” says Mr Allen.

    Rodney Allen

    The department’s financial controls “were not strong enough to ensure the strategic partner project was managed effectively”, says the NIAO official.

    A gateway review of the project was undertaken in January 2016 which concluded “innovation from BT was patchy”.

    Mr Allen summarises three critical points: “the absence of good contract and project management; poor prioritisation of projects and finally, insufficient management of the savings associated with them”.

    The NIAO representative refers to a number of other reports his office previously carried out.

    He says the NIAO welcomed "a deep dive review" the department's audit and risk assurance committee undertook,” which “explored in some detail|” and “brought to light some of the concerns that we have now put into the report”.

    “In view of all of this we could not conclude that digital transformation has delivered value for money for citizens,” says Mr Allen, adding “there has been some progress but there is some way to go”.

    He outlines ten recommendations which the office have made in their overall report.

    Since the report was published last year, “we are aware there has been a considerable change in key staff” who were responsible for taking forward the project, says Mr Allen, adding that “the department has put BT in breach of contract” as well in the interim period.

  3. The LandWeb project

    Rodney Allen of NIAO picks up on some of the details.

    He says the Audit Office published its report on LandWeb on 16 June.

    The report was "produced following anonymous concerns from a member of the public" that were raised through an MLA.

    Mr Allen explains that"LandWeb is used to process all registrations and charges on the three land registers - that's the main land register, the register of deeds and the statutory charges register".

    LPS (Land and Property Services) entered into a concessionary agreement with BT for a £46m PFI project called LandWeb to improve the efficiency and customer service.

    Mr Allen explains the services to be provided by BT.

    The firm was to recover "their costs entirely by receiving a set transaction fee, which in turn was part of the charge that the department levied on its customers".

    Following an Audit Office report published in 2008, the Public Accounts Committee expressed concern "that better value for money could be secured" and made eight recommendations.

    Rodney Allen

    The findings were that poor strategic planning led to a series of extensions to the concession agreement - the original agreement was for 17 years to 2016. It was extended to 2019 and a further extension to 2021 will be necessary, Mr Allen explains.

    The contract value to 2021 just short of £107m, 138% more of the original estimate.

    NIAO believes that sufficient time should have been found "to explore, negotiate and put in place alternative arrangements to enable the agreement to be terminated".

    There also no value-for-money mechanisms in the agreement and "the users of LandWeb services have been overcharged" since 2014. The net surplus collected as a result amounts to £39m.

    Among the recommendations made by NIAO in its latest report is a call for a new Fee Order "to be introduced urgently"

  4. 'What has the tax payer got in return?'

    Kieran Donnelly

    Kieran Donnelly begins the briefing session and says there are two reports - one which was published 15 months ago on digital transformation, and the second was a follow up on land registry.

    He says there are some themes “which straddle both reports”.

    Mr Donnelly says “the biggest issue to me is the department’s capability to manage large, complex, long-term contracts with major players in the market, such as BT”.

    “The big, big issue is around contract management".

    “The second issue is around value for money, and it’s really, what has the tax payer got in return?”

    Mr Donnelly says from the NI Audit Office report, “we are not able to give a positive assurance that the tax payer got value for money in that case, nor are we able to give positive assurance on the LandWeb project either.

    The third issue is to “explore where we are in the NI public service and digital transformation," says the comptroller.

  5. 'Parity with the rest of the UK'

    wideshot NI senate chamber

    Kieran Donnelly, the Comptroller and Auditor General, says “this is a fairly straightforward direction”.

    “The minister had asked the department to uplift the rates inline, to get parity with the rest of the UK,” he says.

    Members have no questions about the matter but note it.

    William Humphrey then moves the members to a briefing from the NI Audit Officials on the Inquiry into The LandWeb Project and Digital Transformation.

    The following officials join the briefing:

    • Mr Kieran Donnelly CB, Northern Ireland Audit Office
    • Mr Kyle Bingham, Northern Ireland Audit Office
    • Mr Rodney Allen, Northern Ireland Audit Office
    • Mrs Clare Dornan, Northern Ireland Audit Office
    • Ms Christine Burns, Northern Ireland Audit Office
  6. Public Accounts Committee Committee

    Wide shot of the committee

    Committee chair William Humphrey of the DUP calls the meeting to order.

    Following some initial committee business he introduces the first session of the day.

    It's on the Ministerial Direction in relation to the Infected Blood Payment Scheme.

    The witnesses are Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly and Kyle Bingham from the Audit Office.

  7. Time for lunch

    Pam Cameron wraps up the meeting.

    We'll be back at 14:00 with a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee.

    Do join us then.

    In the meantime we're off for a bite of lunch.

    sandwich
  8. 'We’ve played ball with the Department of Health'

    NI Assembly

    After a quick comfort break, MLAs are back in the senate chamber.

    Pam Cameron, the deputy chair, moves members to the next item of business.

    She reads out some correspondence before members agree to take note of The Nutrition (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 from Food Standards Agency NI official Sharon Gilmore.

    Next up is a discussion on Coronavirus travel regulations.

    Ms Cameron says “no official is available to take questions today” and asks if members are willing to defer considering these regulations until next week’s meeting.

    She also proposes that the committee write to the department about this issue.

    Alex Easton of the DUP says “we’ve played ball with the Department of Health” adding, “this is a heavy committee” and “they need to be here when we need them”.

    The deputy committee chair then directs the members through a number of other items of business.

  9. 'Would be for future employees'

    Pam Cameron

    Pam Cameron, the deputy chair moves members to questions.

    Colm Gildernew of Sinn Féin raises concerns about Westminster and the legislation. He says it has “not understood the complexity and are poorly-placed to devise legislation that would protect interest of our people”.

    Pam Cameron of the DUP asks “how many staff are depending on legislation going through”.

    Ms Quinn-Duffy says “anyone that is already working, and who has their qualification recognised, falls under citizens right provision”.

    “This is a future relationship, so it would be for future employees,” she adds.

    Ms Cameron thanks the official for her brief before advising members to take a short break.

  10. Mutual recognition of qualifications

    Ms Quinn-Duffy outlines the background to the directive.

    She says it was put in place to support the free movement of health care professionals throughout the EU by putting in place a method for mutual recognition of qualifications.

    The department has been working very closely with the Department of Health and Social care in England "who take the lead for healthcare professionals", she explains.

    Wide shot of the committee

    Following the end of the transition period "the EU directive on the recognition of professional qualifications will no longer apply to the UK", she explains.

    The official says that on 1 January 2021 the UK government intends to put in place a temporary system of recognition.

    Ms Quinn-Duffy explains that registration is a wholly devolved matter "however it has been established practice to legislate on a UK-wide basis".

  11. 'No exit issues that should hinder those arrangements'

    Alan Chambers of the UUP says he understands that “in the past” the NHS has purchased a “number of procedures from clinics in the Republic of Ireland”. He wants to know if that will still be the case or if there will be obstacles.

    Patricia Quinn-Duffy, who joins the meeting by audio link, says that for the “purchasing of block treatments for surgeries”, those “treatment themselves will be almost like commercial contractual arrangements”, adding there “should be no exit issues that should hinder those arrangements continuing”.

    Alan Chambers

    The deputy chair of the committee, Pam Cameron, thanks the panel for joining the meeting.

    Two of the officials leave room, before the committee moves to the next item of business.

    Patricia Quinn-Duffy from the department remains on the line to brief the committee on the following UKSI - The European Qualifications (Health and Social Care Professionals) (EU Exit) Regulations.

  12. 'They understand it’s urgent'

    Órlaíthi Flynn

    Órlaíthi Flynn from Sinn Féin asks about the legal advice sought in relation to the Internal Market Bill and when that advice will be received.

    Cathy Harrison says she’ll be “on the phone right away” after the meeting to chase it up.

    “They understand it’s urgent,” says the official.

    Ms Flynn then asks about plans being formed with officials in other UK regions, but wants to know if there is any contact with counterparts in “the south”.

    Ms Harrison says she does have a contact in the Department of Health in the Republic but adds, “the primary focus of our work at the moment is with working with DHSC and the devolved administrations”.

    She adds that she is only “speaking from the medicine point of view” in relation to her engagement with the Republic of Ireland.

  13. 'Finer details around the healthcare directive'

    “To what degree are some of the finer details around the healthcare directive going to be hammered out?” asks Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw.

    She says “the south would get quite a poor deal” in relation such a deal, given the length of waiting lists in NI.

    Patricia Quinn-Duffy from the department takes the question.

    “There is a paper going to the north-south ministerial council that is being prepared at the moment,” she says.

    Paula Bradshaw

    “The cross-border healthcare directive will not apply as it does at the moment to the UK, and Ireland in itself has to make a decision as to whether they continue to use the Cross-border Healthcare Directive,” she adds.

    “As NI, we are looking at it in the department as well.”

    Turning to capacity and waiting lists, Ms Quinn-Duffy says “most people that use the cross-border directive use the private healthcare sector”, adding that “it really does depend on what the capacity is there”.

  14. 'There always are shortages of medicines'

    Pat Sheehan of Sinn Féin says Ms Harrison "skirted around the elephant in the room during your presentation when you said that the Internal Market Bill had been introduced and you were seeking legal advice".

    He asks the Chief Pharmaceuticals Officer for a guarantee that "there aren't going to be shortages of medicines" after 31 December.

    Pat Sheehan

    "I don't think there's ever been the level of surveillance in our medicine supply chain as there is a t the moment," says Ms Harrison.

    "At this moment in time even without any issues we would always have a certain amount of medicine shortages so I couldn't give a guarantee that there would never be any shortages of medicines because at any time there always are shortages of medicines which arise for a multiple of reasons," she adds.

  15. Enduring Reciprocal Healthcare Agreement

    People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll asks the officials to give a “broad sense of the themes” being looked at by legal experts in relation to UK Internal Market Bill.

    He also asks for “an expansion” on the enduing reciprocal healthcare agreement.

    Cathy Harrison replies that in relation to the UK Internal Market Bill, she is focusing on the areas that relate to her work programme within the department, such as medicines and medical devices.

    Gerry Carroll

    Patricia Quinn-Duffy takes the reciprocal healthcare agreement question.

    She says it is being working on by the UK and Irish governments and is “basically on the principles that are on the social security EU regulations”.

    This includes areas such as needs-arising healthcare, which would be used with an EHIC card, around legislation which is for planned care within the public sector in another members state and another piece which would include pensioners living in other states having their healthcare paid for and frontier workers.

  16. 'Could the Protocol see medicines delayed?'

    Alex Easton of the DUP says that under the NI Protocol "there will be checks and tariffs at our ports".

    He wants to know if this could result in medicines being delayed.

    Cathy Harrison says "it's one of the areas we're working on right now".

    "As written, without mitigation, there's a risk, but it's important we focus on those mitigations."

    Alex Easton

    Pressed further by Mr Easton on the possibility of delays, Ms Harrison says:

    "There's a risk of it, but the mitigations that are being worked up will ensure arrangements are in place to avoid that, that is where we're working towards."

    Asked about the licensing of new drugs post-transition, the official says, there are a lot of implications for leaving at the end on the transition period and there is not a single answer or a single assurance that can be given.

  17. 'More stock in the UK at this moment in time than normally'

    The SDLP’s Colin McGrath asks the official to outline how many people are working on Brexit within her department.

    Ms Harrison says there are seven people “at the moment”.

    “The expertise that resides across the department will be drawn upon,” she says, adding “we will be working with our whole department in terms of policy areas”, adding that for “this accelerated period, a unit has been pulled together”.

    “That’s a dedicated team that has come together for end-stage planning,” she adds.

    “It doesn’t seem like very many, but okay, it’s there,” replies Mr McGrath.

    He asks a supplementary question about “workforce considerations” and wants to know if there has been any work done to find out “how many people might have to leave, how many people can stay”.

    Patricia Quinn-Duffy from the department answers the question.

    “Unfortunately EU nationality isn’t part of the collection of data at the point of hiring, so we actually don’t know the number of EU citizens that work in health and social care as part of the trusts,” she says.

    “The Department for the Economy has been doing some work on how many people were leaving, and it seems to have settled down since the referendum in 2016,” says Ms Quinn-Duffy.

    She also talks about the EU settlement scheme which is open for citizens to apply.

    “The EU settlement scheme is opened until June next year, so there is a six-month buffer on the settlement scheme,” says the official.

    Colin McGrath

    Mr McGrath then asks about a no-deal scenario and wants to know “how much stock is available for critical medicines and how long would it take to sort of replenish those”.

    Cathy Harrison says there is a “multi-layer approach” to the issue, adding considerable resources have gone into surveillance of medical supply chains.

    “We do have a lot more stock in the UK at this moment in time than we would have had normally,” she says, adding “it varies depending on what we’re looking at”.

    Mr McGrath asks the official to give an assurance that “nobody will be without their medicines come January, February time”.

    “I can give an assurance that the work that is being done here is comprehensive in terms of medicinal supplies and there is no need for anyone to do anything different in terms of ordering their medicines or prescriptions at the moment in time,” says Ms Harrison.

  18. 'The signs are looking very positive'

    Colm Gildernew of Sinn Féin joins the meeting by audio link. He says his broadband will not support video at the present time.

    The chair of the committee explains that he has taken the “precautionary measure” to join the meeting remotely as he has been in contact with someone who is awaiting results from the Covid-19 test.

    He asks about the 11 statutory instruments mentioned in the brief, and wants to know if these would come from Westminster.

    The officials confirm this is the case.

    Mr Gildernew then asks if Ms Harrison if she think there will be “further complexity” around these rising from the UK Internal Markets Bill.

    Cathy Harrison

    Ms Harrison says she has not been advised that there will be any disruption to the statutory instruments as a result of the Internal Market Bill.

    She elaborates that within the context of her responsibilities in the department she has sought legal advice to understand how, or if, there will be any disruption to the “programme of work we’re working on”.

    The official says that, at the minute, “I couldn’t really say that there has been an additional risk identified in relation to the legislative programme".

    Mr Gildernew wraps up his questions by asking about “uninterrupted” cross-border healthcare treatment for people during and after the transition.

    Patricia Quinn-Duffy from the department takes the question. She joins the meeting by audio link.

    Ms Quinn-Duffy says “in terms of reciprocal healthcare arrangements”, the UK and Ireland “are progressing a negotiation to put in place an enduring reciprocal healthcare agreement”.

    “Discussions on that are at a very advanced stage and we do expect that to be in place by the end of the year,” she adds.

    “At the moment, the signs are looking very positive.”

  19. 'Cancer centre and paediatrics should not be impacted'

    Deputy chair Pam Cameron has the first question.

    She notes Ms Harrison's reference to the UK Internal Market Bill and the fact that the department is awaiting legal advice.

    Ms Cameron wants to know to what extent concerns over the Ireland/N Ireland Protocol could be alleviated by the Internal Market Bill.

    Wide shot of the committee

    The official says she can't say too much as she awaits the legal advice but her officials have read the bill and their impression is that it relates more to "west-east issues rather than east-west" and her main concern is NI's medical supplies.

    Asked about a timescale for the Cross-border Health Directive, another official, Patricia Quinn-Duffy says "we hope to have some information to the minister shortly".

    She says that north-co-operation on matters such as the Northwest Cancer Centre, the paediatrics services in Dublin and out-of hours-services in the west - "none of those really have any bearing on EU regulations and should not be impacted, and there should no necessity for any bill or any legislation".

  20. '98% of medicines used in NI are transported in from GB'

    Cathy Harrison begins the briefing session.

    In her opening remarks she says she is the lead in the department on Brexit issues relating to the Department for Health.

    She says she’s going to provide a broad update of the current issues being discussed, but commits to coming back to the committee to provide more regular updates.

    Ms Harrison outlines a range of work that has been undertaken with colleagues in other parts of the UK.

    She says there has been a “very complex multi-layer approach” relating to medicines, which covers “the establishment of buffer stock”, “additional warehousing, also re-routing and freight arrangements” among many other plans.

    These are part of UK-wide plans, says the official.

    Turning to medicine supplies and medicines “more widely”, Ms Harrison says “98% of our medicines used in NI are transported from GB into NI via the NI ports”.

    At the minute, the whole of the UK is aligned with the EU for medicines and medical devices, which the official says will change as a result of Brexit, as NI remains in alignment and GB will not.

    Ms Harrison says one issue is “in relation to the fact that after the transition, NI will have to comply to certain EU directives relating to medicines”, such as the Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD).

    NI will continue to comply to FMD, says Ms Harrison, which she adds “raises a number of issues with medicine supplies and regulation and a 12-month derogation has been requested by the UK government to the EU to allow time for the various mitigations to be put in place”.

    Another issue which the official discusses is importation requirements. “There is a lot of work, a lot of legal advice is being sought, a lot of mitigations are being sought up in this area”.

    Cathy harrison

    Moving to access to health care, which the official describes as more of a “north-south issue”, Ms Harrison says the Department of Health and Social Care in England and the Department of Health in the Republic of Ireland are currently working on an “enduring reciprocal health care agreement”.

    “The committee may be interested to know the volume of legislative work that is likely to be associated with this, which will be coming through here, and I have been advised that our estimate is that there will be at least 11 statutory instruments coming through the committee,” says Ms Harrison.

    The department official mentions the UK Internal Markets Bill which she says “is a relatively new development and we have sought legal advice on the implications of that for our work programme”.