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Live Reporting

Tori Watson and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all for today

    William Humphrey winds up the evidence session and the committee takes a break.

    They'll be returning in private session so we'll have to leave them to it.

    We'll be back on Monday at 12:00 with a full assembly sitting.

    But there'll be plenty more political coverage until then, starting with The View, tonight on BBC One Northern Ireland at 22:45.

    View more on twitter

    Then of course there's Inside Politics to look forward to with Mark Devenport on Friday, BBC Radio Ulster at 17:30.

    And, Sunday Politics on BBC One NI from 10:00.

    If that doesn't tickle your political tastebuds, nothing will!

  2. 'Problem of single-year budgets'

    The issue of single-year budgets is raised by SIB's Brett Hannam.

    "One of the problems of single-year budgets is that the construction industry needs at least six months notice of what's coming down the line," he says.

    Mr Hannam continues, that there are obviously issues if a budget is only agreed "several months into the actual year it pertains".

    Brett Hannam

    David Sterling chips in that the last time there was a multi-year budget agreed by the executive was in 2011.

    The NI Civil Service head adds that it's been difficult for the executive as the Treasury has not set long term spending plans, but that a spending review is due to be completed this summer which will "presumably set spending totals for several years".

    "That would allow the executive to produce a programme for government, an investment strategy and an underpinning budget for a longer period than we have seen for a while," he adds.

  3. The role of private sector experts

    Roy Beggs asks about the place of experts in major projects.

    Brett Hannam says the SIB is asked to bring in experts when requested by departments.

    "Departments will identify where they have a particular need for specific technical expertise" which cannot be found in the public service, he explains.

    Glider bus

    He gives the example of the Belfast rapid transport project (above).

    "I think it would be wrong to simply assume that it's a good idea to bring in people from the private sector in every instance," he says.

  4. 'Retention of senior responsible officers'

    Roy Beggs of the UUP says that in the private sector an engineer would see a project through, from start to finish, as "they know all the information" and can then be held accountable.

    He asks the panel whether a similar scheme should be considered for civil servants.

    public accounts committee

    David Sterling responds that "historically" Whitehall had a problem with keeping senior responsible officers (SROs) for the duration of a project - and Sue Gray agrees.

    While he says he does not have evidence at hand, retention of SROs doesn't seem to be the same issue in NI.

  5. 'Responsible to ministers'

    In response to a query about who is accountable if there's an issues in departments or across government, David Sterling quips: "People sometimes think that as head of the civil service, I can tell other permanent secretaries what to do, but sadly that's not the case."

    The other panelists laugh, but Mr Sterling continues that permanent secretaries are "responsible to their own ministers".

    David Sterling

    "The important point here is there is a significant role for the Department of Finance in terms of seeking to provide guidance which all departments adhere to," he adds.

    "Whilst I do not have powers of direction or control over other departments, we do have an NICS board which seeks to manage the civil service, which I chair, and we are keen through the board to work collaboratively together, collectively and to have common standards as far as possible."

  6. 'We need to be a bit more transparent'

    Sinn Féin's Cathal Boylan asks about instilling confidence in the tendering process.

    "I think we need to be a bit more transparent about our performance" says Des Armstrong (below).

    Mr Armstrong has responsibility for construction and procurement delivery at the Department of Finance.

    Des Armstrong

    "When we go to tender we make sure that we have the funding available, that we're not asking contractors or consultants to tender on spec on the likelihood that the funding might come later," he says.

  7. 'Significant change since 2013'

    Independent MLA Trevor Lunn asks about the effectiveness of reviews, such as that carried out by the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) in 2013 into the procurement process.

    Brett Hannam, from the SIB, says that report wasn't implemented in full due to a number of factors which are outlined in the Audit Office Report.

    But the head of the civil service continues that "in fairness, I think there has been quite significant change since 2013".

    David Sterling

    He adds that while centralisation didn't happen, the reduction of departments has resulted in "much greater concentration of expertise in a smaller number of departments and that has had an impact."

  8. 'A more robust, swifter planning system'

    Committee chair William Humphrey (below) says that three projects in particular, the Belfast transportation Hub, Casement Park stadium and the critical care centre at the Royal Victoria hospital have all encountered problems with planning.

    Is there anything "Northern Ireland PLC" to ensure a more robust, swifter system.

    William Humphrey

    Mr Sterling says a balance needs to be struck around planning - he references the recent unforeseen setback for plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

    "When people are looking at projects they need to anticipate all possible planning issues and avoid them, but we don't want people to become so risk averse and look to identify every potential planning pitfall and then lead to a position where things don't really move at any significant pace," he says.

  9. 'Difficult to say never'

    The committee chair asks whether the panelists can "assure" that the move from a 10 stage to five stage procurement process will prevent future overspends.

    He adds that it's not just one project "that has gone wrong here in terms of finances" but 11 "major projects that have cost the public purse £700".

    Public Accounts Committee

    The permanent secretary at the Department of Finance, Sue Gray, replies that while the new process is "very robust" and "will be very transparent," it would be difficult to say "never".

    She refers to her former colleagues at Whitehall and says that while they have "done a lot of work" in this area, "they are still coming in over budget" and that some projects, depending on their complexity, can take longer to complete than expected.

  10. 'A 56% increase in tender prices'

    David Sterling makes a comment on cost overruns.

    He says uncertainty around funding is "an issue".

    "In that regard, we haven't had a multi-year budget since 2011" he reminds members

    cash

    "We've been in a period of austerity where there has been little real terms increase in our budgets over the years," the head of the civil service adds.

    He lists several more financial challenges, including a 56% increase in tender prices in the eight years from 2014 projected to 2021.

  11. 'Greater clarity about roles and responsibilities'

    Sue Gray from the Department of Finance, outlines changes which have been made to "streamline the business process".

    "The old model was over complicated and there were lots of appendices," she says.

    Now, she says, there is "greater clarity about roles and responsibilities".

    Sue Gray

    As a result, Ms Gray says departments are now required to be clear about what they are doing.

    "Sometimes schemes go forward on the basis of not as detailed a cost assessment as we would like - so we have been doing a lot of training around this, training of our staff," she adds.

    Mr Humphry says that's "very alarming", to which Ms Gray clarifies, that she did not mean to suggest that work was not being done, but rather there is now greater need to "explain things clearly" and if expert advice is needed "we will get expert advice" to assist the stages of applications.

  12. 'Eight out of ten projects worldwide miss targets'

    Time for the evidence session proper.

    The witnesses are Head of the Civil Service David Sterling, Sue Gray and Des Armstrong from the Department of Finance and Brett Hannan, who's the chief executive of the Strategic Investment Board.

    Mr David Sterling (below) makes some opening remarks.

    David Sterling

    "Evidence from around the world shows that major projects are intrinsically difficult to deliver and, as many as eight out of 10 fail to meet their time and budget targets," he says.

    "We agree with the two recommendations in the report and we also welcome the C&AG's proposal to conduct two further studies into the lessons to be learned," Mr Sterling adds.

  13. 'Horrendous overspend'

    The DUP's David Hilditch asks the auditor general if there are any consistent issues in each project that has caused "such a horrendous overspend".

    Mr Donnelly replies: "In some cases, because there have been enormous time lags, from the outlined business case, part of the reason will be of course time and inflation."

    Kieran Donnelly gives evidence in Senate

    He adds: "What all this does demonstrate is the crucial importance of getting the figures that outline a business case as precise as possible, because it's at that stage that bids for resources come in."

  14. What's in the Audit Office report?

    A5 road project

    The Audit Office report on major capital projects was published in December 2019.

    It reported that 11 major capital projects in Northern Ireland had not been completed on time and had run millions over budget.

    They include the A5 road upgrade (above), Casement Park, Ulster University's new Belfast campus and the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital.

    Seven of the 11 were identified by the executive in 2015 as flagship projects.

    At the time, Kieran Donnelly, auditor general, said major capital projects are complex and delivery problems are not unique to Northern Ireland.

    "Existing, cumbersome governance and delivery structures within the Northern Ireland public sector can be a barrier to achieving value for money," he added.

    You can read more about the report here.

  15. '£692m overspend on major capital works'

    Following some opening committee business, the members welcome Auditor General Kieran Donnelly (left) and Tomás Wilkinson (right) from the Audit Office.

    Kieran Donnelly CB (left) and Tomás Wilkinson (right) from the NI Audit Office.

    Committee chair, William Humphries, says that last week he asked Mr Donnelly to provide costings of the overspend into the 11 major projects, as reported in the Major Capital Works report, up to December 2019.

    He says those figures have been provided, and that the overspend is £692m, which he describes as "stark".

  16. Post-lunch briefing

    It's going to be a busy enough sitting for the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

    Public Accounts Committee Agenda
  17. Inquiry into NI custom arrangements post Brexit

    At the House of Commons, there's a new inquiry being established about Northern Ireland and custom arrangements after Brexit.

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    The inquiry will look at a number of issues, including whether a revised Northern Ireland Protocol will allow goods produced in Northern Ireland unfettered access to the rest of the UK internal market.

  18. Time for lunch

    That's a wrap from the Health committee - we'll be back at 14:00 with live coverage of the Public Account Committee.

    But, if you can't wait for more political action from the house on the hill - why not check out the Red Lines podcast?

    It's a great listen..if we say so ourselves.

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  19. 'Children's health care a broad term'

    Gerry Carroll, of People Before Profit, asks whether the department is considering appointing a deputy chief medical officer to specifically "oversee children's healthcare as a main priority" to ensure a "clear channel of reporting any potential cases like this again".

    Conrad Kirkwood says "children's health care is a very broad term".

    Gerry Carrol

    He says the "approach of department is to identify, clearly, a patient safety element for everyone under a deputy chief medical officer and to make that a locus for all patient safety issues."

    He finishes by saying that on that basis, the department will recruit a deputy chief medical officer.

  20. Death certificates and the medical examiner

    Jemma Dolan of Sinn Féin asks about the appointment of an independent medical examiner, which was one of the recommendations made in the report.

    A medical examiner would have the authority to scrutinise a greater number of deaths than are currently subject to independent analysis.

    David Best says one of the challenges the examiner will have is quick access to death certificates so there is no additional stress to the families "at a particularly difficult time".

    David Best

    He explains that death certificates are recorded online and the examiner should be able to access these "as live" when they are entered into the computer and appear on a list.

    Mr Best says the purpose of the review is to ensure that the stated causes of death are correct and that relevant cases are referred to the coroner.