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Live Reporting

Tori Watson and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. Good afternoon

    Stormont

    That brings to a conclusion yet another busy week of action at the house on the hill.

    We'll be back on Monday for an Assembly plenary session live from the chamber.

    Until then, have a great weekend and stay safe and socially distanced.

  2. 'Public bodies keep getting caught out over and over again'

    Kieran Donnelly

    Kieran Donnelly from the Northern Ireland Audit Office is invited by the committee chair to make some remarks.

    “Public bodies keep getting caught out over and over again with contract expiry,” he says.

    “I am a little bit perturbed at the rationale for doing yet another expansion of LandWeb as there wasn’t enough breadth to actually deal with all the contracts that needed to be renewed,” he adds.

    “That suggests there’s not enough capacity in the system to actually deal with a number of these contracts that are running out at the same time,” he says.

    Stuart Stevenson from the department says he has no comment he wishes to make.

    Committee chair, William Humphrey, thanks the panel for attending the meeting before entering private session.

  3. 'Are LPS customers are paying too much?'

    William Humphrey

    Committee chair William Humphrey asks Ian Snowden if LPS customers are paying too much for the services that are provided.

    He replies that the Audit Office report of June 2020 said that "the surpluses indicated that the fees were higher than they needed to be and as a consequence of that, then users were being overcharged".

    The official says that in normal times the department would have been able to revise the fees downwards but this option wasn't available for the past three years" as the assembly has not been sitting.

  4. 'Strategic supplier framework?'

    Matthew O'Toole

    Matthew O’Toole of the SDLP asks “does the NI civil service have a strategic supplier framework”.

    Ms Gray says “we’re just starting on that”.

    Mr O’Toole asks “was there a structural look at how we manage strategic suppliers at that time”.

    Ms Gray says “I don’t know about that time” but adds, “what I know is that we’re doing it now”.

    “We’re very much building on what the Cabinet Office has done,” she says.

  5. 'Frankly shocking how public money has been used'

    Wide shot of the committee

    "Frankly shocking how public money has been used in this area," is the opening gambit of UUP MLA Roy Beggs.

    He asks about the prioritisation of projects in the digitalisation project.

    Departmental official Paul Duffy says that in 2012 departments were asked what services they were in a position to digitalise and about 120 were identified.

    "They were then prioritised down to 18," he says, adding that "the main driver for prioritisation was the volume of transactions that that service would provide".

    Mr Beggs says that, surely, the criteria should have been cost effectiveness and the difference it makes to people's lives.

  6. 'What happened in the past is unacceptable'

    Andrew Muir of Alliance asks about the “reviews that occur” through the lifetime of the projects and wants to know “why weren’t these acted upon”.

    Mrs Gray outlines the “new process we have put in place” around “gateway reviews”.

    “All gateway reviews come to the permanent secretary” she explains, something which didn’t happen previously, unless it was flagged red.

    Paul Duffy says there was a gateway review in 2016 on the NI Direct contract which had an amber rating.

    There were a number of issues flagged up around the “lack of innovation from BT as part of that gateway review”, adding that a recommendation from the review was that the contract had “outlived its useful life and a new contract should be put in place”.

    Andrew Muir

    “It’s very clear that what happened in the past is unacceptable” says Mr Muir.

    He wants reassurances that this “won’t occur in another department”.

    Sue Gray outlines a number of measures which have been put in place and are “being rolled out across of other departments”.

    “Some department’s may have already been doing it, but we’re making sure we formalise it,” she adds.

    Mr Muir asks “how confident are you that” the total cost won’t exceed £110m.

    “We are confident that will be the case,” says Ms Gray.

    Paul Duffy says in 2018 the position was taken that “no other projects would be facilitated under this contract”.

    “There is no new development going through the contact,” he adds.

    Paul Duffy
  7. 'From the frying pan to the fire'

    Cathal Boylan wishes Paul Duffy luck in this transfer from DVA to the Department of Finance but suggests it may be a case of "from the frying pan to the fire".

    He says to Ian Snowden that the LandWeb contract started in 1999 and is due to finish in 2021, but "what's to stop it being a 25-year contract".

    Mr Snowden says the original price was £46m in 1999 prices.

    "What's happened to cause the cost increase over that period of time is partly inflation," he says, adding that the rest of the increase has come from additional services that the department has asked BT to provide.

    Mr Snowden admits that "with a little bit of foresight" these additions could have been included in the original contract.

    "It will extend beyond July 2021," the official says in order to allow time to implement a new system.

    Cathal Boylan

    Mr Boyaln asks if the department has the skillset and the capacity to deliver value for money for this project.

    "I believe we have," says Ms Gray.

  8. 'A lack of management skills or business acumen within the department?'

    David Hilditch of the DUP is up next.

    “There just seems to be a trait of don’t do anything until we have to,” says the MLA.

    “Surely potential overspends of this nature would have been maybe discussed within the department, did it have to take a whistleblower to come forward to the PAC?” he asks.

    Mrs Gray says “these issues would’ve been discussed with internal audit in the room”.

    Ian Snowden jumps in and says the issues raised by the whistleblower had been “well known”.

    “It didn’t take a whistleblower to bring these things to light,” he says, adding there is “detail of contracts” on the NI Direct website.

    “There was no attempt to disguise these issues, they were all openly declared,” adds the official.

    Mr Hilditch asks how LandWeb was deemed to be value for money.

    The original objects of the contract were to “computerise the whole process” says Ian Snowden, which would reduce the time and cost to customers.

    David Hilditch

    “There are quite a few benefits” to have come from the project, says the official.

    “Is there a lack of management skills or business acumen within the department?” asks Mr Hilditch.

    Paul Duffy says “at the time the appropriate people weren't in the team with the appropriate skills to manage the project”.

    He says it was being run by “IT professionals who were very focused on supporting departments to deliver transformation and I suspect didn’t have the right skills in financial management and business controls”.

    Ian Snowden
  9. 'This contract was the victim of its own success'

    Órlaithí Flynn of Sinn Féin says she accepts that Ms Gray and some of her team are "relatively new into the post" but what "took us all by surprise, when we were discussing it last week, was how it went unnoticed after a period of time of seven years with that contract at BT".

    She wants to know if this was down to "a wider skills deficit among the civil service or could it have been down to just a general lack of focus on cost".

    Sue Gray says she can't explain why it was described as a 10-year contract when it was a seven-year contract with a break point.

    Órlaithí Flynn

    "I do think that the team were working hard" and "this contract was a victim of its own success in a way".

    "I can talk about where we are now," the permanent secretary says, adding that she doesn't want to be "undermining the people who have worked on this previously".

    "We need to ensure that we have the right people with the right skills," says her colleague Paul Duffy.

  10. 'So what?'

    The committee chair then asks the officials “are you aware that when Audit Office officials spoke to a senior in your department around these issues, and it was advised that the figure was going to be closer to £110m, as opposed to £50m, the response of that individual was: so what?”.

    Mr Duffy says “I couldn’t comment”.

    Mrs Gray says “that would not be how we would behave and I can absolutely give that assurance”.

    Mr Humphrey says the overspend on this project could have been used to build two schools.

    Turning to the LandWeb project, which the contract was originally signed for £46m, Mr Humphrey says it could now end up costing £107m.

    The committee chair asks if there is a “laissez-faire” culture within the department and what is being done to address it.

    “There is not that culture in the department” says Mrs Gray, adding “none of us were actually in place when these contracts were negotiated and signed”.

    William Humphrey

    She outlines a number of steps that have been taken since she has taken up her post to address some issues.

    “When I arrived, we didn’t have a list of all of our contracts in the department” or when they were due to be updated, she says, adding this issue has now been addressed.

    Mrs Gray says there is a “strong culture now” of “not wasting public money”.

    “I think it feels different,” she says.

    “I think what I have been able to bring is experience from the Cabinet Office,” says Mrs Gray.

  11. 'You would expect the spend to have been tracked from day one'

    William Humphrey, the committee chair, jumps in for a supplementary.

    He asks “in relation to NI Direct, when was that contract signed?”.

    The contract was signed in 2012, says Paul Duffy. He adds it was a “seven year contract with an option to extend for three years”. The estimated cost in 2012 was £50m he adds.

    “The final of this project, which was £50m estimated, ended up being £110m,” says Mr Humphrey, adding “we’re not in a position to lecture mainland departments about efficiencies and so on, how can we get to the point where we overspend by £60m on a contract the department didn’t understand the timeframe for?”

    Paul Duffy says the forecast spend was £110m by the end of 2022.

    “There were obviously weaknesses in the department’s internal controls around financial management and cost controls,” he says, adding there have been a “number of steps taken” to address those issues”.

    Mr Humphrey asks if the NI Audit Office went into the department on an “annual basis” to flag up projected overspends.

    William Humphrey

    Mr Duffy says the issue was “flagged up” in the 2016/17 financial accounts by the NIAO.

    “At that time, what was done was a team that was looking after the project, clearly didn’t have the skills that were required, the financial management skills, to manage that project,” he says.

    “There was a resources then brought in to check those costs and to ensure they were properly monitored,” adds the official.

    “The department did devise a tracking system around that time, which has been built on over the last number of years and is now providing the information that’s needed,” he adds.

    Mr Humphrey questions why it took five years to put the tracking system in place.

    Mr Duffy replies, “I couldn't excuse why it took that long to track the information".

    “You would expect the spend to have been tracked from day one” adding “I suspect it was tracked from day one but actually the control of it was lost at some stage," says Mr Duffy.

  12. Provisional driving licences

    The DUP's Harry Harvey has the first question.

    He says that the first time a driver has dealings with DVANI (Driver and Vehicle Agency) is when applying for their provisional licence "and when they go on to the website this cannot be carried out".

    Why can it not be done in NI.

    "Is it cost? Have we not got the technology?" he asks.

    Harry Harvey

    Department of Finance official Paul Duffy has recently joined the department from DVA.

    He says DVA has been through a significant transformational programme to put many of its key frontline services online, including many driving licence operations.

    Mr Duffy explains that a verification process has to be gone through with first licences.

    He says that in Great Britain a verification system called Verify is used and the DVA has been in close contact with the government digital services about potentially using that system.

    Ms Gray says the Cabinet Office started working with Verify many years ago and "they have invested very, very heavily in it".

  13. 'Treating every taxpayer's pound as we would treat our own'

    Sue Gray

    Sue Gray, the permanent secretary of the Department for Finance, says her previous role in the Cabinet Office and Department of Finance in London means she is “really aware of how important digital transformation is for public services”.

    “It’s absolutely right there is public scrutiny of these weaknesses,” she says, in relation to the report into the digital transformation project.

    “I very much believe” in “treating every taxpayer's pound in the same way we would treat our own pound”, she tells the committee.

    Mrs Gray says “we’ve been making greater use of our contacts” across a variety of sources “to learn from their experience”.

    The official adds that it would be beneficial to have multi-year budgets.

    “I think the department is in a different place,” says Mrs Gray, “we have a strategic contract management system, see all of our contracts now, well before they are due to expire and I've appointed a commercial director on the department”.

    “We are in a different place, but it’s quite right that we are here today to be answering some questions about these contracts,” she adds.

  14. Public Accounts Committee meeting

    Humphrey

    Committee chair William Humphrey calls the meeting to order.

    This afternoon the committee is hearing from Department of Finance and Audit Office officials as part of its inquiry into lhe LandWeb Project and Digital Transformation.

    The witnesses are:

    • Sue Gray Department of Finance
    • Paul Duffy Department of Finance
    • Ian Snowden Department of Finance
    • Kieran Donnelly Comptroller and Auditor General
    • Stuart Stevenson Department of Finance
  15. On the agenda this afternoon

    We're back from a quick lunch break and joining the Public Accounts Committee.

    Here's a quick look at what's coming up on the agenda.

    NI Assembly
  16. Lunch break

    Paul Givan announces that the committee is going into private session for the remainder of the meeting.

    We'll be returning to the Stormont senate chamber at 14:00 for this afternoon's meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, which continues its inquiry into the LandWeb Project and Digital Transformation.

    Just time to grab a sandwich . See you at 14:00

  17. 'You've got to decide what are you going to do'

    Paul Givan

    Committee chair Paul Givan says the members are going to have to come to a view on a matter they've been discussing "at length, week after week".

    "At some point you've got to decide what are you going to do," he adds.

    Paul Frew raises a rather convoluted technical point and Dr Holland says she and her team will take his query away and consider it.

    "We're doing the formal clause-by-clause next week so no pressure," says Mr Givan.

  18. Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill

    Paul Givan

    The committee chair moves members to the next item of business: Deliberations on the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill clauses, including other issues not currently included in the Bill and possible amendments.

    There are a number of department officials attending the meeting, who are on hand to answer any further questions members may have.

  19. 'Incredibly important and Covid has not made it any easier'

    Doug Beattie of the UUP says he’s had a “real influx” from officers and former officers who are concerned about the police “injured on duty procedures”.

    Mr Byrne says “this is a really live and important issue for all sorts of reasons”.

    Mr Beattie says “this is incredibly important and Covid has not made it any easier”.

    He asks the chief constable for his view on whether people are being well served.

    Mr Byrne says in terms of the “management of the public purse” the scheme is considered expensive.

    “I would like to have a scheme that is fair and equitable, but also is a lot faster,” he adds.

    Doug Beattie

    Linda Dillon, the deputy chair of the committee, asks about the Black Lives Matter Protest on 6 June in which a number of people were cautioned.

    “Do you think that the use of the section in relation to a peaceful protest was proportionate and appropriate?” asks the MLA.

    Mr Byrne says a number of files have been issued to the PPS on this matter.

    He says he cannot comment on the matter further.

    Committee Chair Paul Givan thanks the chief constable and his colleagues for attending the meeting.

    They leave the meeting.

  20. Training for officers on domestic abuse

    Rachel Woods asks if the police have had any input into the guidance being drafted by the Justice Department as part of the Domestic Abuse Bill.

    "Yes," says the chief constable.

    In reply to a question about training for officers on domestic abuse, he says that the police are looking at training from December for 3,000 frontline officers.

    Chief constable

    Ass Chief Constable Mark McEwan says the PSNI are concerned with ensuring that officers can recognise coercive and controlling behaviour and they have have developed the training in cooperation with Women's Aid.