Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

Reform of the public sector tops agenda for Simon Hamilton

Improved efficiency a must, new finance minister tells CBI

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton with CBI chairman Ian Coulter. Photo Kelvin Boyes/Presseye

Private sector skills will be needed if plans for public sector reform announced by the new finance minister are to work, it's been claimed.

In his first major speech to business, Simon Hamilton revealed he will set up a new public sector reform division in his department to deliver public services more efficiently.

The minister said saving money is not the " be-all and end-all" in the new division but that it would aim to make money go further.

He said public sector reform was the "single biggest challenge facing Northern Ireland" over the next 10 years.

However, contrary to the views of many business organisations, he said the public sector was not too big but that its size could be an asset.

European nations with dynamic economies, such as Sweden, had big public sectors.

He said: "Each of these countries have utilised the power of the public sector to shape their economies into what we aspire to as well – innovative, competitive and export-orientated economies."

Making the most of the resources available would not automatically lead to measures such as reintroducing prescription charges, he said.

"We will be asking whether we are spending the money we already have efficiently, without going out to ask people for more money to spend inefficiently."

The CBI – which hosted a business breakfast addressed by Mr Hamilton – said commercial skills would be needed in the new division, a version of which it had recommended this year.

"We fully support a more strategic body, which will have strong commercial skills and experience within it.

"Similar models have been used effectively in other countries including in Great Britain and Ireland to help transform public services."

DFP would not dictate reforms to departments, Mr Hamilton said, but would help "make reform happen".

Services could be provided outside the public sector.

"Models like mutuals, co-operatives and social enterprises as well as partnering with the private sector could improve the quality of services and do so in ways that save us money."

John McMullan, chief executive of social enterprise the Bryson Charity Group, which already provides public services recycling, welcomed the minister's suggestions.

"Northern Ireland social enterprises are among the best in the UK and on these islands and are more than able to grow their role in the rebalanced economy the minister describes," he said.

But public sector trade union Unison hit out at the plans, calling them "an attack on public jobs and services".

Regional secretary Patricia McKeown said: "Playing to the gallery in the business world to demonstrate you're a 'tough guy' with the public sector is lame when you are presiding over a highly suspect system of public procurement."

One commentator said Mr Hamilton was a "breath of fresh air" for his enthusiasm – but what was needed was for those who would be implementing change to also be up to the task.

"Get someone from the private sector who has experience in delivering reform. That's what Northern Ireland needs."

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