NOVA SCOTIA HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
November 2012 Report of the Auditor General
Printed and Published by Nova Scotia Hansard Reporting Services
Public Accounts Committee
Hon. Keith Colwell, Chairman
Mr. Howard Epstein, Vice-Chairman
Mr. Clarrie MacKinnon
Mr. Gary Ramey
Mr. Mat Whynott
Mr. Brian Skabar
Mr. Andrew Younger
Mr. Chuck Porter
Mr. Allan MacMaster
[Ms. Becky Kent replaced Mr. Gary Ramey]
[Hon. Wayne Gaudet replaced Hon. Keith Colwell]
[Hon. Christopher d’Entremont replaced Mr. Chuck Porter]
[Mr. Eddie Orrell replaced Mr. Allan MacMaster]
Mrs. Darlene Henry
Legislative Committee Clerk
Mr. Gordon Hebb
Chief Legislative Counsel
Office of the Auditor General
Mr. Jacques Lapointe, Auditor General
Mr. Alan Horgan, Deputy Auditor General
Mr. Terry Spicer, Assistant Auditor General
Ms. Evangeline Colman-Sadd, Assistant Auditor General
HALIFAX, WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2012
STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
Mr. Keith Colwell
Mr. Howard Epstein
MR. HOWARD EPSTEIN (Chairman): Order, please. I call the meeting to order. Let’s get on with our session this morning. In the absence of our regular chairman, as vice-chairman, I will try to keep order in this meeting.
Welcome to all of you. We have the Auditor General with us today and perhaps we could start with the formalities of people introducing themselves.
[The committee members and witnesses introduced themselves.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, and welcome to the Auditor General and his staff today. We’re going to proceed with our questioning based on the latest report. I wonder - of course, we do have the report and we’ve all had the opportunity to read it. Did you wish to add to it by making an opening statement?
MR. JACQUES LAPOINTE: Yes, if I could just make some quick opening remarks. Thank you for the opportunity to be here. As you know, my Fall report was tabled in the House of Assembly on November 21st. This is my third report in 2012; it covered audit work completed by the office in the summer and Fall of this year. I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss it with you today.
With me today are Deputy Auditor General Alan Horgan, and Assistant Auditors General Terry Spicer and Evangeline Colman-Sadd. Alan, Terry and Evangeline are each responsible for certain chapters in the report, so I’m sure that among us we can answer any questions that you may have.
Before I begin, I do want to acknowledge the valuable work, the dedication and the professionalism of all my staff. Their efforts made it possible for us to provide assurance to the House of Assembly on the operations of government. I also thank the many public servants in departments and agencies whose co-operation was vital to the success of our audits.
There are four chapters in the report, in addition to the introduction. We make 107 recommendations, all intended to improve departmental and agency operational efficiency and effectiveness. Knowing that you have the report, I will just briefly mention the topics that are covered. In Chapter 2 we report on our audit of the home-schooling program at the Department of Education. We found a need for a significant improvement to this program. As it stands now, the Department of Education is not properly fulfilling its responsibility to protect the rights of home-schooled children.
Chapter 3 deals rather extensively with systems at Capital Health and the IWK Health Centre that manage the personal health information of patients. We found numerous and significant weaknesses in processes that protect the privacy of this information and that keep important health care information systems operating on a 24/7 basis.
In Chapter 4 we report that capital budgeting and spending in the hospital system needs improvement and we note that existing spending levels and spending allocations are not adequate to prevent the ongoing deterioration of hospital infrastructure and equipment in the province.
Our last chapter discusses our audit of the Trade Centre Limited where we found that financial and operational activities are not appropriately managed. The Trade Centre requires a major overhaul of its financial management practices to achieve an appropriately professional level of management.
With that, Mr. Chairman, it would be our pleasure to answer any questions that the committee may have on our report.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much. Our usual procedure is to turn to each caucus for 20-minute tranches of questions. I did receive a message that Mr. Younger is delayed in traffic, but will be here soon. Mr. Gaudet, did you wish to start for your caucus?
HON. WAYNE GAUDET: No.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Orrell, I guess it’s over to you, is it?
MR. EDDIE ORRELL: Just with the home-schooling, I realize that the Department of Education has been, I guess, lacking the tools to make sure that children who are being home-schooled are properly followed. I guess the biggest question is, have the processes been - or are being developed - to ensure that the children that are moving between public, private and home school are being tracked properly?
MR. LAPOINTE: I would say that there are very little processes in place in any part of that program, including the tracking of students moving from one aspect of the school system to another so that the department really doesn’t track very well when students move from the home-schooling system to the public or vice versa. We did comment on the fact that they need to improve that tracking system.
MR. ORRELL: If a parent decided they wanted to home-school their child, how do they go about registering so that they receive the proper information to do the schooling at home?
MR. LAPOINTE: There is a registration form that parents are required to complete when they do this; they submit it to the department. It identifies that the student is identifying to a home-schooling system, but there is very little follow-up information on that system.
MR. ORRELL: Are all the children that are being home-schooled registered with the Department of Education?
MR. LAPOINTE: We can’t be certain, because the tracking is poor, that all students’ whereabouts are known.
MR. ORRELL: So if someone does leave the public school to go into the home-school program, they should be easily tracked? If they didn’t register, say, the following year, would the school system go to see where that child was - if they moved or if they were getting home-schooling? If, say, you went from one school to another - if I was living in Cape Breton and moved to Halifax and registered in Halifax - would it show that I registered in Halifax compared to Cape Breton and, vice versa, would the same thing happen for the home-school system?
MR. LAPOINTE: I think what I’ll do is ask Mr. Spicer to provide more details on exactly how that works.
MR. TERRY SPICER: If a child is moving from a public school system in one board to another board - it’s a new system actually that they have in place now - it would track that fairly well. The problem becomes when a child leaves the public school system and decides that they want to be home-schooled. Right now the school boards don’t have a requirement to let the home-schooling people at the department know that that’s actually happening.
Our understanding from talking to the school boards is that if the child was really young, they would probably do some work to find out where that child is. If they’re not in their school board anymore, does anybody know if they moved or whatever. That’s difficult to do with the numbers of children.
The problem tends to be when the child leaves the public school system to be home-schooled, the home-schooling system is not informed of that to do the proper follow-up to make sure that, in fact, they are registered in home-schooling or, if they didn’t, where did they go?
MR. ORRELL: As they get older, you say that’s the biggest problem. Are there standards being put in place or have there been recommendations made to try to improve that system?
MR. SPICER: Yes, we’ve made some recommendations in our report that indicate that - they have a fairly comprehensive system in place now with the public school systems. What they really need to be doing is have the school boards or somebody informing - if you’re leaving the system or if you’re leaving the public school system, to let the home-schooling people know that this child plans to be home-schooled so that they are aware and they can follow up the next year to make sure that they are, in fact, registered in home-schooling. If they’re not registered in home-schooling, did they register in another part of the province in the public school system or did they attend private school, so they can do some manner of follow-up on that.
MR. ORRELL: So when a child does the proper registration and they get registered for home-schooling, do they receive a package with the goals for that school year for the grade level they are to be schooled at?
MR. SPICER: In the home schooling program, no they don’t. They receive a registration form, and the parents are then supposed to provide their program plan or what they plan to teach the child. But there’s very little as far as instructions that are being sent to the home-schooling people to identify what are the expected outcomes.
In fact, that’s another one of the recommendations in the report. The department really does need to establish what the expected learning outcomes are for the home-schooling students at the various grade levels, so that parents know if they choose to go the home-schooling route, these are the general expectations of what your children should be learning and the skills that they should be getting.
MR. ORRELL: So are they provided with the tools, the literature, the books or whatever to see that they achieve those goals?
MR. SPICER: No, not now they’re not. They can ask for some help and the department will provide what they can, but right now there’s very limited information that’s provided to the home-schooling parents to provide guidance in that area.
MR. ORRELL: Are the families or the parents interviewed or provided assignments or testing to know that they are achieving the goals they need in the home-school system?
MR. SPICER: The department at present does not test the kids in the home-schooling program to see whether they’re making appropriate educational progress.
MR. ORRELL: So if a parent is not diligent in what they’re doing at home, a child could really fall behind fairly quickly and not achieve the goals they need to move to the next grade level and eventually graduate from the public school system?
MR. SPICER: That’s definitely one of the highest risks we identified with the program. The Department of Education right now doesn’t have the information it needs to be able to assess whether children are making appropriate educational progress.
MR. ORRELL: So in your evaluation, would you say that the bulk of the children who are being home-schooled - how many are being home-schooled? Do we know?
MR. SPICER: This year it was around 850. It fluctuates from year to year, but it’s 850 to 1,000 depending on the year.
MR. ORRELL: And I’m assuming and I hope I’m correct in assuming this - the children who are being home-schooled are receiving what they need, but there is no indication to say that as of now?
MR. SPICER: That’s right, that’s correct, yes.
MR. ORRELL: So there are steps being put in place by - you guys have made recommendations. Is there any idea that those recommendations are going to be followed through to see that that happens?
MR. SPICER: Jacques, do you want to take it.
MR. LAPOINTE: Yes, I can address that. We have had a meeting with the Department of Education to discuss these recommendations. The indication we were given was that they do treat this very seriously, they do recognize that what’s being done right now is minimal and that the recommendations do need to be implemented. I’m hopeful, given that they indicated that they are taking it seriously, that they will, in fact, implement what we recommend.
MR. ORRELL: Have they given you guys any timelines of when those recommendations may take place or begin to take place?
MR. LAPOINTE: They have indicated it’s a two-step program they’ll be following. Some of these recommendations, they say, can be done very quickly and they identified which ones they feel can be done fast; some tracking issues and so on. Some will require more study and policy, and even they say some changes of legislation to give them more power. I don’t know how much legislation is required to be changed to do these things, but they indicated some of the recommendations will take longer to do.
MR. ORRELL: But they didn’t give you a timeline of when that would take place or begin to take place? I know the ones that are easy will probably take place right away, but the more difficult ones like say the tracking or the testing - have they given you a timeline of how long that may take?
MR. LAPOINTE: I think at this point it’s a little uncertain.
MR. ORRELL: Because the longer that takes, the more chances there are for children falling through the cracks, so to speak. Is there any indication or are you guys confident that that’s not happening now? Or is there any indication that the education children are getting at home is as good as or better than the school system itself?
MR. LAPOINTE: We don’t have any knowledge of how well these children are doing and neither does the department and that, of course, is our primary concern with this. If you were to ask us or the department whether the children in the home-school system are being properly schooled, we could not answer that question because we don’t know and neither does the department.
MR. ORRELL: So if a child was going to go from being home-schooled back into the public education system, where would we know what grade level or what classroom to put them in? Are they tested then or is it just because of their age and supposed grade level, they go back to that?
MR. LAPOINTE: I’ll ask Mr. Spicer to address that.
MR. SPICER: When they return to the public school system they are tested to see sort of where they fall. Typically, I believe that they would be placed in a classroom at their age group. Then what would happen would be any sort of extra resources that they would need to address any areas where they were weak would be provided through the public school system at that time.
So yes, they are tested. They are typically placed with their peers but then they would be provided with the resources they would need to correct any problems they may have, if they have any.
MR. ORRELL : Just a couple more quick questions on the home-schooling part of it. With the funding aspect of it, we’re hearing that every student in the public school system gets around $10,000 a year towards their education. We’ve discussed this before with the special needs children. Do these children who are home have that - I guess the amount of money available to them for resources that they may need to do the home-schooled part of it?
MR. SPICER: No, our understanding is that there is no funding provided to the parents for home-schooling.
MR. ORRELL: Even if it was a special needs child who needed maybe special seating or maybe the attention span wouldn’t be great enough to sit in a public school system but they could use that stuff at home - that stuff wouldn’t be provided to the parent?
MR. SPICER: Well, there are some resources available through the department for special cases. I believe also a home-schooled child can partake in public school classes if they’re available to them, if the school board is able to accommodate that, but there is no specific funding that’s provided to each home-schooled parent or child as part of the program. As certain needs arise, I believe the department does attempt to help the parents with those special needs.
MR. ORRELL: Was there any indication that that has been done over the last year or two, to help a child schooled at home with that - financially, I guess?
MR. SPICER: In the files that we tested, there were no children that we saw who requested that. Now through conversations with management at the department, they have indicated that that has been done in the past. I don’t have a specific example but again, based on our interviews with management, they indicated that has been done in the past.
MR. ORRELL: But that’s just interviews, there’s no solid evidence to say that happened. So really it didn’t happen, in other words, because I asked that question here one other time about endoscopes and stuff like that being done. If it’s not documented, we’re told it doesn’t happen, so correct?
MR. SPICER: We didn’t look at all the files in the home-schooling program, we looked at 120 files. Of the 120 files that we looked at - but it may have been that those children were not ones who had special needs as well.
MR. ORRELL: I guess we’ll move on to the IT section now for a few minutes. What do we have, about six minutes left?
I guess my biggest question is past employees, I’m a past health care employee myself and I had access to the system at home, in Cape Breton, for medical information. Do past employees still have that access to information here in the Capital Health and IWK system? Or is their access terminated when they’re terminated, or when they take leave away from the hospital?
MR. LAPOINTE: I’ll ask Mr. Horgan to say a little more to that but I can tell you that the theory is that employees are taken off the access to information once they are terminated, once they leave the system. One of our findings was that this does not always occur and people can be gone from the system but still have access.
MR. ALAN HORGAN: We tested for that and we found some cases where staff had left the hospital and still had their user IDs and access to various accounts. As a practice, both hospitals are very aware that they need to terminate computer accounts of people who leave the hospital, but sometimes the people who terminate the accounts - basically people in IT support - aren’t aware of everyone who might leave. In cases like that, there needs to be a strong connection between the personnel department of an organization and the IT department. As we were talking to them about these findings, the hospitals agreed wholeheartedly that they had to strengthen that connection, the passing of information between those two operations.
MR. ORRELL: I know myself, in the Cape Breton District Health Authority, I had access to four or five different hospitals because of my position. When I left, I had no indication that my information or my ID would be terminated. Has that been breached or has that posed a risk so far? In the studies that you’ve done, have there been any findings that someone who has left may have tried to access information?
MR. HORGAN: We did not come across anything like that. I mean, it’s definitely a risk. Any area that we can control presents the risk, but we did not see and we weren’t told of any incidents where a prior employee abused the systems because they still had access.
MR. ORRELL: I would sure hope that it doesn’t happen, just as a professional being a professional. But if that did happen, would there be a red flag raised on that or would it come up that my access was - or that I would try to access the system after being off it for so long? Is there anything in place to see that or show that?
MR. HORGAN: A number of their systems have logs that will log who is accessing a system and changing data on a system and the like. We looked at various systems at both of the health centres and found that while a number of systems have logs, a number of systems don’t have the logs for various reasons - some because the systems are very old. Just because something is logged, it doesn’t mean that these logs will be examined and such inappropriate access will necessarily be found.
We mentioned in our report that there needs to be some kind of proactive monitoring of computer logs to look for cases just as you described, or other cases where maybe even employees of the organization are accessing things that they should not be. Both organizations agree that there needs to be systems to do that.
MR. ORRELL: How often would those logs be checked? You say everything is logged and I know when we start, we sign an agreement of confidentiality to not deal in areas that we’re not supposed to be dealing in. How often would that be checked or was there any indication that it was checked on a regular basis or even checked at all?
MR. HORGAN: We found generally that the logs are not being checked. Logs kind of serve two purposes - one being preventive so that if someone does something inappropriate the log will point it out right away. Also, logs can be used to investigate incidents so if something comes to, say, a manager’s attention that something might be wrong, they can go back to the logs already aware that maybe something has happened and then they can investigate and see the details.
As to reviewing logs - these logs are very large because they’re logging everything that every user does on these area systems, so in order to monitor logs you really need software to do it. You need software to basically go through all the data and pick out anomalies. Neither of these organizations have that kind of software at the moment.
MR. ORRELL: So there is really nothing to stop me from going in and checking my wife’s blood work or my next door neighbour’s X-ray; I would have access to it. Now me checking blood work as a physiotherapist probably wouldn’t be appropriate as such, but there wouldn’t be a red flag raised to say that I was checking whatever that wouldn’t pertain to my department, I guess, is the best question, would there?
MR. HORGAN: If the access you still had enabled you to do those things, I would think that it probably wouldn’t be noticed particularly quickly until, perhaps, they get the software and get it up and running, and even still that will only pick out certain cases.
MR. ORRELL: And I will say I will not do that, that’s one thing I won’t go back and check on. I just want to make sure that by what we’re implementing here today or what you recommended, that the security of Nova Scotia citizens and their health care files are going to remain secure and there are processes put in place to make sure that that’s going to continue to happen. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, the first tranche is expired. Mr. Younger, in your absence Mr. Gaudet chose to pass on the first opportunity to ask questions, but I’ll go back to you now if you’d like 20 minutes on behalf of the Liberal caucus, go right ahead.
MR. ANDREW YOUNGER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I apologize for being late, but I thank the member for Clare for waiting for me. I know there are a lot of chapters to cover and we’ll do them all in-depth at a later time, but there’s a few points in each one of them I thought I might try to cover. The first one, I may as well follow up with some on the home-schooling side. I think we probably all recognize as many children as there are being home-schooled there is probably as many reasons for that home-schooling. Sometimes it might be distance from schools that parents don’t feel comfortable with them travelling in some parts of the province, or sometimes it’s special needs or exceptional needs, there are all kinds of options.
The two areas I just wanted to ask about was one - and you touched on this when the member for Cape Breton North asked around supports given through the public system. I am aware of a number of people especially within more urban areas who are able to access physical education programs, art programs, and science programs in the public school to complement the home-schooling program. I’ve spoken to a number of parents who do access those resources and I’m wondering - and maybe you didn’t look at this - was that tracked at all?
MR. LAPOINTE: I’ll ask Mr. Spicer to answer your question.
MR. SPICER: We haven’t seen where that has been tracked and there was no information that we looked at within the files that we looked at that would suggest that was being tracked in any way. I’ll go back to my earlier comments from management, and as you’ve stated, we understand that is available and that’s done either through the home-schooling association or the individual parent with the school board.
MR. YOUNGER: I’m not sure how it’s arranged, as I say, but I do know it happens because I’ve spoken to a number of parents who, whatever it is on Monday morning, they go to physical education class or in the upper school level they’ll go the science labs because, of course, it’s pretty hard to run a Bunsen burner and everything in your kitchen, and that makes sense, there’s actually some logic to that. But what concerns me is obviously public schools are funded on the basis of being able to provide supports to students and if it’s not tracked is there a concern - and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be provided to home-schooling parents - but what I’m concerned about is if a particular school has to deliver those services to a home-schooled child and it’s not tracked, then it’s very hard to track the cost of that so that the schools are appropriately funded for those students. Is that a real risk or that wouldn’t be a concern?
MR. SPICER: I guess it’s a risk and it’s tough to answer that because we really have no idea how much of that goes on. I think, again, we do know that is available to home-schooling parents through the school boards, but the extent to which that happens, we really don’t know and I don’t believe the Department of Education would know either. Whether the school boards track that themselves, they may do that, we didn’t look at that as part of the audit.
MR. YOUNGER: I assume, maybe incorrectly, that the board knows which students are showing up and so forth - I would hope they do. My concern is if the board’s not doing it that it’s hard for the board to determine appropriate funding and whether they need resources. Similarly, some home-schooled children will just do it for elementary or just a couple of years and some go all the way through. I have spoken to - I don’t want to overstate the number - a couple of people who had trouble once they reached the transition to community college or university - in most cases, university. I’ve actually heard this with some of the private schools as well so it’s not unique to home-schooling - acceptance of the high school completion certificate.
I know that your audit noted that it’s hard to assess meeting the objectives and everybody can have a different curriculum, as you go along. But once you hit Grade 12, or what we assume is completion of Grade 12, there are certain requirements to meet a Nova Scotia high school graduation certificate and some of those include five equivalent credits of Grade 12 level. If you’re in the public school it’s very easy, you’ve taken five Grade 12 classes, you’ve passed them with whatever mark is the pass. Has the department set up any kind of matrix that would measure equivalencies for the high school completion certificate for home-schooled children?
MR. SPICER: No, they haven’t.
MR. YOUNGER: Should they?
MR. SPICER: Well, I mean I guess that would be a question for the department. Our audit focused on assessing the children as they go along. Now we understand that the universities, as an example, if you wanted to attend university and you were being home-schooled, that they would require perhaps some testing to be done to evaluate whether they had the skills set that they needed to be successful there.
I think that’s really a question for the department and where they want to go with their home-schooling program.
MR. YOUNGER: That’s a fair comment. I think you’re right, I think some of the universities do do testing. Again, I want to be completely fair to parents in the Home Education Association, that there are - I don’t even know what the percentages would be but I know a lot of them do very well and some of them actually excel better than kids coming out of the public system. So there’s a range. I’ve also talked to a couple of parents whose son or daughter had to go back and had to do a GED program because there were certain things that the university or the place they were applying to felt were missed. Obviously we can talk to the department about that when that comes forward.
I’m going to jump a bit to the Trade Centre audit, and I can’t remember exactly which person did that - oh, that’s you, it’s your lucky day. (Laughter) I was reading the responses from Trade Centre Limited and I guess I want to get some clarity on them and perhaps you don’t have any clarity to provide, beyond what is here and if you don’t, that’s fair. In a number of cases, they made comments like they felt that their processes were already adequate. In fact, they said the same thing over and over again which I thought was kind of amusing. For example, on Page 93 of the report for anybody who is following along at home, the Trade Centre response - and the wording is almost the same for a few of them:
“TCL believes that the financial and operational controls and processes that TCL has in place including compensatory controls have been adequate to provide reasonable assurance that reliable financial information is produced and that operations are managed effectively, however, TCL will undertake an assessment of its internal control systems.”
You obviously feel differently, or it seems you feel differently, that the controls were not adequate. I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on that.
MR. LAPOINTE: I can start and let Mr. Spicer add a little more detail. In general, I would say that the response of the management of the Trade Centre Limited is a denial that there’s anything wrong. If you look through the responses you will see repeated assertions that their financial management practices are adequate, and their internal controls are adequate. They deny, in fact, most of our findings and recommendations, while sometimes saying that nevertheless, they will go ahead and do a review.
They are not accepting that there are any issues of the financial management. They are saying, in effect, that their financial management practices are acceptable and we are saying that they are poor. We are, in fact, saying that they need a major overhaul of their entire financial administration. They, in effect, don’t agree with really any of the significant recommendations. They agree with a couple of minor ones to do with expense claims and so on, but even there they seem to say, for instance, that the CEO’s expense claims were treated consistently, or some such wording, while we’re saying they were not reviewed, they were not approved, and they were not appropriate in terms of what was submitted.
MR. SPICER: I think you summed it up pretty good. I mean if you look through many of the details in the report: in Paragraph 5.23 we’ve identified 14 different control weaknesses; in Paragraph 5.24 we’ve identified nine instances where the controls weren’t working as required; and as Mr. Lapointe said, we’ve identified issues with how travel claims are being processed and the documentation supporting those.
There were issues in the procurement area, and there were issues with the support for allocation of costs between specifically the Metro Centre and Trade Centre Limited. So I think the report - I believe and we believe - stands for itself. There are a number of issues that have been identified here that would be inconsistent with management’s response.
MR. YOUNGER: Over the years your office has audited a number of these organizations which are, I guess, semi-autonomous but they’re still under the purview of a department. One of the things you pointed out consistently was not following the standard provincial procedure. It’s funny that their responses that they manage things consistently, that seems to be true, but not consistently within the rules - consistently in sort of what appears to be skirting the rules.
In the case, for example, of a CEO, it’s fine if you’re a lower level staff person and the CEO probably signs off on your expense claims. In other organizations like this within the government structure, who would normally sign off on the CEO’s expenses and that sort of thing?
MR. LAPOINTE: In this case it’s pretty straightforward. The board of directors - more specifically, the chairman of the board of directors - would be the appropriate person to sign off on CEO’s expense claims and that’s what I expect to see happening, starting now.
MR. YOUNGER: This is obviously a serious issue regardless of whether anything was happening but now that we’re moving towards a new trade centre, this strikes me as a much more important issue because one assumes there will be a much larger budget and so forth going forward. What is the relationship or what did you find to be the relationship, if any, between oversight in the department and these sorts of things in the trade centre?
For example, in some of the other - I’m going to call them semi-autonomous, I’m sure there’s a better word - but these semi-autonomous organizations, the department often has some sort of oversight, so if it’s Film Nova Scotia, Tourism goes in and they check things now and again - I don’t know how often but now and again. Was there any sort of oversight of that nature from, I guess it would be the Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism - I think that’s what it’s called now - and Trade Centre Limited?
MR. LAPOINTE: From what we saw, Trade Centre Limited is operating as an independent agency and quite often that’s the case. In fact, the intention when an agency is set up with a board of directors, the board of directors does report to the minister but really assumes fiscal responsibility and managerial responsibility. They are the ones who have oversight over the organization, so the department isn’t involved in any way.
MR. YOUNGER: The reason I asked that is because I noticed on Page 88 of your report you looked at the funds that were transferred from government, in Table 5.9, to Trade Centre Limited. Now it says total funding from government so I assume that’s - oh, yes it is, that’s combined provincial, federal, and HRM funding.
In most years most of the funding was HRM, which I believe is related to the management agreement for the Metro Centre. That’s a pretty consistent number, in the ballpark of $570,000. In 2010-11 there was a one-time operating grant of $4.8 million and I know that they were given a one-time - I had thought they were given a one-time operating grant because of some deficit issues, but this seems to been far in excess of the deficit which would have otherwise been $1.2 million, which was down from the previous year and it results in actually giving them a net profitability of $4.7 million. Was there any indication of why that grant was issued? Was that an advance payment on something?
MR. LAPOINTE: Rather than thinking of it as advance payment, thinking of it as a catch up in that the Trade Centre operates at a loss every single year and is subsidized for that loss by the provincial government. There are fairly steady small amounts from Halifax and a certain small amount of funding from the federal government, but the province subsidizes a loss and this was catching up on accumulated losses of prior years. My understanding is that they have been informed that they are to be operating a balanced budget by a certain point, but that is not the case yet.
MR. YOUNGER: I appreciate that clarification. Was there any indication given that obviously the province is subsidizing - and I’m not sure, but it appears that many of these organizations around North America at least are similarly subsidized by some level of government or by some mechanism. Given that sort of annual subsidy and the desire to work toward a balanced budget, have you noticed any plans either as a result of your audit or before-hand of the department planning to do additional oversight, to ensure that they reached that point? I didn’t see anything in the responses that would indicate there are plans for . . .
MR. LAPOINTE: No, I would say we haven’t in our audit come across any intention to have any kind of increased oversight in relation to the funding, so we don’t have anything in our files on that.
MR. YOUNGER: One of the other issues you talked about was the report they did examining the new World Trade and Convention Centre, and you recommended that a second opinion be done. If I read your comments correctly, you’re basically saying that their assertions aren’t supported and that they’re neither right or wrong, you just can’t tell because they seem to be - I would use the words “educated guesses”, in some cases. Is that a fair characterization?
MR. LAPOINTE: I would say what we were looking at was some specific financial information given by Trade Centre as part of the decision making. These are the economic impact analyses where they project how much business will be generated in the future and therefore how much money will be generated in the area by the additional business. We know that was one of the many factors in the decision to create a convention centre, but that particular information was a financial exercise - that’s why we looked at it. That information had significant flaws in the backup for research and analysis to create the numbers.
That is why we thought that a concern was that the government needs to have good, solid information provided to them when they are making decisions. There is a responsibility by management and staff to provide government and Cabinet appropriate information. We’ve had similar recommendations with other audits that we have done in which we’ve said that what’s going forward is simply not of a quality that is appropriate for going up the line.
On that basis, we said that it would be a good idea for additional work to be done by someone else to provide accurate forecasts of economic impact and that’s the recommendation we made.
MR. YOUNGER: I’m not sure whether you can respond to this or not, I’ve often been concerned with economic impact studies because I think they are often educated guesses at the best when we say there’s going to be a spinoff of X number of jobs, or X number of millions of dollars and then when you get multiple projects, you’re counting them two and three times between different projects.
I agree with you that there should be another study done but I’m wondering whether this is a problem, even if it’s worse in this case, with the nature of that kind of study where we are asking - and I don’t know why we started asking people to do this. We’ve started to ask people to do projections of, there will be this many spinoff jobs and this much economic activity, when really that’s almost impossible to measure until after the fact.
I saw a study recently that talked about - a certain project would have this many new hairdressers and this many new fast food joints. That strikes me as being - it may be a very educated guess, but a guess nonetheless.
MR. LAPOINTE: I’ll ask Mr. Spicer to talk a little bit more about what we think happened here.
MR. SPICER: You’re correct. Projections are future-oriented so by their nature they’re likely going to be wrong. One would expect that an appropriate amount of rigour is put behind the assumptions that are done and that’s the issue that we saw here. As the report lays out, there were a number of areas that we believe weren’t appropriately considered when coming up with the assumption. Yes, it is a best guess by nature, but there is an assumption and a level of rigour that should be behind it - especially a significant project like this - that we believe just simply wasn’t done here.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. The 20-minute tranche for the Liberal caucus has expired. We move now to the NDP caucus, and Mr. MacKinnon.
MR. CLARRIE MACKINNON: Good morning. As a long-serving school board member, I want to zero in on the home-schooling first. In Section 2.14 of your report, it states that, “The Education Act and regulations do not specify what home schooled children should know . . .” and be able to come up with the outcomes. Does that mean that the department would have to make changes in the Education Act to implement your recommendations?
MR. LAPOINTE: I’ll ask Mr. Spicer to address that.
MR. SPICER: It is true that the Education Act doesn’t specify what home-schooled children would need to know. It would follow, I would assume, that the Education Act would need to be updated if, in fact, they were going to go that route, yes.
MR. MACKINNON: Do you have any suggestions on what kinds of changes would have to be made?
MR. SPICER: Well, as the report lays out, it’s really up to the Department of Education to determine, what are the expected outcomes that you would like home-schooled children to achieve? They have a number of options. The public school system has a fairly robust set of outcomes and guidelines that are expected - they could use those. If they feel that they should be different for home-schooled children, then they need to develop and articulate what those are. They could use a combination of the two, but it’s really up to the Department of Education to figure out, what skills do we expect home-schooled children to achieve?
MR. MACKINNON: In your Recommendation 2.2, you recommended that every home-schooled student be assessed by the province. So as a follow-up to the first question, would this be a major change to the current legislation?
MR. SPICER: The current legislation suggests that the minister has the right to test children if they so choose. I think probably from a legislation point of view, that element may be there. I think the significant change is what’s happening in practice, in that it’s not happening now. The department has a number of options that they could do with this. They can look at children on a periodic basis to see how - they don’t have to do every child every time. They can look at it on a risk-based sort of process where those children who are doing well and they believe they’re doing well, well maybe they don’t need to be tested on a - they can stagger those out a little bit more. So there’s a lot of options they can look at there.
MR. MACKINNON: Years ago many of those who were being home-schooled were being home-schooled because of isolation, distance from school, a whole host of reasons. Now today we have somewhere around 850 students who are being home-schooled. I guess it has gone to perhaps 1,000, as you indicated.
Many are being home-schooled for religious reasons, a whole host of areas involving curriculum - whether it’s science, biology, sex education, evolutionary theory - all kinds of things are involved in the backgrounds today on the various reasons for home-schooling. The question that comes to my mind is, will there still be some degree of freedom of choice on the parents’ part?
MR. LAPOINTE: I can say our primary conclusion with this audit was that the Department of Education can’t wash its hands of its responsibility to safeguard the rights of the children involved - that’s a right to have a proper education by the time they grow up - but that does not mean that the department has to micro-manage the system or to excessively reduce the desire of parents to manage their own children’s education. They just have to do enough to see to it and to reassure themselves that no children are disadvantaged by this system and that in the end, all children going through that program have the same rights to education as those in a public system.
MR. MACKINNON: In home-schooling, there is a great recognition of the parents’ responsibility. As a follow-up to the previous question, will the implementation of your recommendations be seen as curtailing of the choices of parents, the choices that they now have?
MR. LAPOINTE: There’s a possibility that initial reaction to these recommendations of ours could be seen that way, if people just read quickly and don’t consider what we’re really saying. I don’t think that is actually the case and I think that if the department does what we suggest - to engage in consultation with parents, do so immediately and involve them in the process - I don’t think there should be a negative reaction to what we’re saying.
MR. MACKINNON: Moving on to the World Trade and Convention Centre, when I was the Economic Development Critic a number of years ago, I always looked at the TCL as being an arm’s length agency. You actually used that quote, Mr. Lapointe, this morning. So you are, in fact, saying that it is an arm’s length agency, right?
MR. LAPOINTE: It depends on what you mean by that term. What we mean by it is that it is supposed to operate with a high degree of autonomy and independence. All agencies in the province have a balance in the degree of autonomy they are allowed and the degree to which they are required to comply with provincial rules.
That’s true with all of them and it varies from agency to agency but for the most part, it’s pretty standard, the degree to which that occurs.
MR. MACKINNON: Has the TCL already completed some of your recommendations as Auditor General?
MR. LAPOINTE: Have they completed them by now? I’m not sure I can say that. Do we know? I’ll ask Mr. Spicer to talk to that.
MR. SPICER: We wouldn’t have done any audit work to assess whether they’ve - the one that we know they’ve done is the CEO’s expenses. At the time we were there, right after our meeting with them, the chairman began to approve the CEO’s expenses. But other than that particular one, we haven’t done any work to assess whether any of the comments they’ve made, as far as implementation are, in fact, accurate or have been done.
MR. MACKINNON: It’s my understanding that some changes are being made, but it would be nice to know what the changes actually are. What has TCL done to ensure adequate accountability in future arrangements with HRM regarding the Metro Centre and Ticket Atlantic?
MR. LAPOINTE: I can address that. What they’re doing for a future relationship with the city was not really part of our audit. We don’t have a lot of information on that, beyond knowing that they are engaging in negotiations with the city on a future relationship, but where that stands right now we don’t have a lot of information.
MR. MACKINNON: One of my concerns was why was there the recommendation to do another market analysis for the convention centre when there had been something like 10 reports, assessments and analyses already done?
MR. LAPOINTE: The recommendation was to do an analysis to address the limitations and the economic impact information that were there, recognizing that a decision has been made already to proceed with a convention centre, so that is not the issue, it was to provide future information for planning. However, I should point out that that recommendation was not, in fact, accepted by the government, so that will not proceed in any case.
MR. MACKINNON: When you made the recommendation for another market analysis did you consider the other reports that were used by TCL in making decisions, those 10 other reports, assessments and analyses?
MR. LAPOINTE: We have reviewed and analyzed all the reports that were associated with this and our findings were taking those into account.
MR. MACKINNON: Moving on to capital planning, can you elaborate on the collaborative process used by the Infrastructure Repair and Renewal Committee to prioritize projects?
MR. LAPOINTE: I’ll ask Ms. Colman-Sadd, who did that audit, to deal with that question.
MS. EVANGELINE COLMAN-SADD: Thank you. I’m just going to make sure I’m speaking to the right committee, the committee names are very close and very easy to confuse. The Infrastructure Repair and Renewal Committee is the committee that not only includes representatives at the department, but also a representative from each district health authority. The committee develops the funding criteria that are ultimately used to score the projects. When district health authorities submit their projects to the department, the districts are aware of what those criteria are going to be and their representatives on that committee have an opportunity to assess all of the projects that have been submitted from the various districts and determine which ones will be put forward for ultimate approval. The ultimate approval isn’t at that level; they would make a recommendation for approval, essentially.
MR. MACKINNON: I’m wondering if you can speak to the improvements that you found on how the department approves projects. What I’m asking is how things have changed from previous years, because I understand there have been some fundamental changes from years gone by.
MS. COLMAN-SADD: Certainly several years ago there would have been much more of - each district health authority would submit their top three projects and that would be what had gotten funded. Now they do have this Pairwise system where they do use criteria to assess projects. Certainly some progress has been made in that regard. There are still areas where there are a lot of opportunities to make additional progress. In certain committees or the groups, such as equipment, for example, the district health authorities have no idea what criteria the department uses to assess the projects that they submit. They’re still asking for the same number of projects in certain areas from each district, which doesn’t really take into account the size and mix of services in districts. Some districts may need more projects in a particular year than in other districts.
I think certainly there has been some progress made in terms of establishing some standard criteria in certain areas and in sharing that with the districts for some of the areas. I think the next steps are to share those criteria in all areas, and to start taking into account size and mix and other things that can result in much better decision making.
MR. MACKINNON: What about consistency of decisions made?
MS. COLMAN-SADD: We did identify some issues in terms of consistency of how some of the criteria were identified. We identified some issues with projects that seemed very similar in different districts but were scored differently, and some might have been approved and some not. We also identified some inconsistencies in how some of the criteria were applied - instances, for example, in which a sample item that we tested scored high in terms of risk of harm. The department staff indicated that it was because the district said there had been some instances of harm or potential harm to staff and patients from that piece of equipment but, in fact, there was nothing in the district’s submission related to that piece of equipment that supported that comment.
MR. MACKINNON: Did you find any instances where harm to patients or staff could be connected with failure to replace or repair equipment or infrastructure?
MS. COLMAN-SADD: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the beginning part of that question.
MR. MACKINNON: Did you find any instances where harm to patients or staff could be connected with failure to replace or repair equipment or various forms of infrastructure?
MS. COLMAN-SADD: No, we did not. In our specific testing we didn’t find any instances where there was a particular example of harm that occurred as a result of a piece of equipment not getting replaced.
MR. MACKINNON: Did you find any evidence of long-term capital planning within the district health authorities?
MS. COLMAN-SADD: Certain of the authorities. Not all of the authorities have long-term capital planning and the department itself doesn’t have a whole lot of long-term capital planning. Capital Health, for example, does have a three-year plan, but both Guysborough and South Shore did not have multi-year capital plans and those are the three districts at which we did more detailed work - Capital, Guysborough Antigonish Strait, and South Shore.
MR. MACKINNON: Could I check, Mr. Chairman, how much time do I have left?
MR. CHAIRMAN: You still have four minutes.
MR. MACKINNON: Thank you. Moving on to the Capital District Health Authority and the IWK IT audit - in the section on system security, the report is referring to access to authorized individuals. Is that correct?
MR. LAPOINTE: Sorry, which one are you referring to?
MR. MACKINNON: We’re dealing with the CDHA/IWK IT audit. I guess at one point we’re talking about a section on system security and the report is referring to access to authorized individuals. Is that correct?
MR. LAPOINTE: Yes, it is.
MR. MACKINNON: The report concludes that there are good physical security actions being taken at Capital District Health Authority to ensure that access to the data centre and the patient information is secure. Can you outline for us what some of the security actions are?
MR. LAPOINTE: I’ll ask Mr. Horgan to speak to that.
MR. HORGAN: I might have to come back to that one because I’d have to find it in the report.
MR. MACKINNON: That’s fine. I do understand that there were some good practices that you discovered with the IWK, that the IWK has practices in place to protect the physical security of its systems; that’s on Page 38 of the November report. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on the good practices that you find with the IWK.
MR. HORGAN: Yes, we did note some good controls at the IWK in the area you mentioned. We note that their data centre is protected by having one place of entry and exit where visitors can be monitored as they come and go. Their data centre is monitored 24 hours a day, which would be a best practice.
Physical security measures are regularly tested to assess their effectiveness. There is environmental monitoring of things like temperature and humidity, which have to be closely controlled in a data centre. They have special sensors and software to make sure that these elements are kept under control.
Any visitor to the data centre has to be accompanied by an employee, so any visitor will be closely monitored. Anyone in the data centre is required to wear visible identification badges so if anyone spots someone walking around the data centre without a badge, they can be approached and asked whether they should be there. There is training with respect to physical security at the data centres.
We found there is an uninterrupted power supply in place so those kinds of systems are used in cases where maybe there’s a power outage, usually a shorter one, and these are basically massive batteries that will kick in as soon as a power interruption occurs and keeps the computers running, perhaps until the power is restored or at least to allow for an orderly shutdown of computers, without damaging them.
We found that there was regular maintenance and inspections being performed on equipment in the data centre.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Excuse me, the time allotted to the NDP caucus for this round has just expired. I think I’ll follow the same order we did before so we’ll go back to the PC caucus. It’s Mr. d’Entremont, is it? We’ll go 15 minutes each time now.
HON. CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Mr. Chairman, I’m going to go back a little bit to the capital planning for the Department of Health and Wellness for a little bit. When you started your work, or even in the findings that you have here, have you an idea of what the infrastructure deficit is in the province right now, when it comes to the health system? Were you able to sort of get a grab of that? You know from my history I think I remember it being somewhere close to $1 billion, if not more.
MR. LAPOINTE: What we do have, and report on, is an estimate by the department that $600 million would be required as a minimum over the next 10 years. Just to deal with the basic essentials of the areas we were looking at, as building infrastructure and equipment.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Did that include the replacement of the VG site or any of those much larger projects? Or was that just more of the roofs and windows and minor equipment?
MR. LAPOINTE: No, it did not include major building replacements like that. It deals strictly with maintaining the basic infrastructure and equipment.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I was looking at the - and I think, Ms. Colman-Sadd, you were talking about the two oversight committees and maybe you can give a better idea of exactly what those two planning committees do. I know from the feeding of the district health authorities, sort of up into the department and the department makes a determination from there. Can you give us an idea of what those two different infrastructure committees do, that kind of sound the same?
MR. LAPOINTE: I’ll ask Ms. Colman-Sadd to answer the question.
MS. COLMAN-SADD: They do, indeed, sound the same and I’ll refer to my report to make sure I don’t confuse them because they’re so alike. There is one committee called the Infrastructure Repair and Renewal Committee and that committee is looking at requests that are under $90,000. Then there is another committee called the Infrastructure Management Repair and Renewal Committee and that committee looks at requests between $90,000 and $1 million. Things over $1 million require an OIC.
The Repair and Renewal Committee has membership from each district health authority as well as staff from the department. The Infrastructure Management Repair and Renewal Committee doesn’t have members from the districts on there, although the districts are aware of how that committee scores its projects.
There’s a third group. I guess you would call them Equipment, and they look at the equipment needs. That is comprised of staff from Acute and Tertiary Care at the department. There is no district health authority representation. What makes that one a little different is that district health authorities have no idea what criteria that group is using to score the projects that they submit.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Can you give us an idea of what kind of projects are submitted to each? Is it roofing? Is it windows? What kind of requests are being put through these committees?
MS. COLMAN-SADD: The Infrastructure Repair and Renewal Committee, which is the one that’s under $90,000 would really be your smaller infrastructure type of projects - perhaps windows or something of that sort. Your Infrastructure Management Repair and Renewal Committee would be starting to get into your bigger projects, but certainly nothing that would be a huge renovation or certainly no building replacements or anything because it does have that cap of $1 million. Those would be things like your roof needs some work or those kinds of things that would cost perhaps in the hundreds of thousands, but not in the millions or tens of millions or more.
The Equipment group deals with all equipment requests - so some of those could be much smaller. It could be a $50,000 item whereas others could be a $3 million item, so it just depends. It is equipment and it is whatever falls within that. One thing could be an MRI; one thing could be an X-ray machine; an ultrasound - all kinds of things.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: In your findings, you were talking a lot about the utilization and trying to put some kind of handle on which machines are being used the most and therefore try to score them a little differently. How much of this, from the research you’ve been doing - is it replacement because it’s worn out or replacement because the technology has changed and the method of treatment and/or testing is completely different, so they’re asking for a completely different machine? The example I have is between a 32-slice CT versus a 64-slice CT. All of a sudden the 32s were no good for anybody and they need a 64. How much of that did you see in there for requests?
MS. COLMAN-SADD: I think it’s a bit of both. There is one area of the report where we talk about the age of equipment and we use Capital Health as an example when we talk about the age of the equipment. If you take a look at that, you’ll see the equipment in the province in the health system, some of it is getting pretty old and so things do wear out and kind of require Band-Aids from time to time perhaps to get - if you don’t have an approved project to get you through to the next cycle when you might get something approved to get that piece replaced, or sometimes things are needed to be replaced on an emergency basis.
There is certainly also clinical practices change over time. Your example of the 64-slice and 32-slice CT scanners is a good one. My understanding is 64-slice CT scanners give them way better information and reduce the need for certain other, more expensive tests like MRIs. So, for example, yes, there would be some of that as well, but I think a lot of the time what you’d be getting is if there is a piece of equipment that is probably getting towards the end of its useful life, past the end of its useful life, and what it’s going to be replaced with is more in line with clinical practices today.
It’s often the two together. I don’t think there is enough money in the system for a five year-old piece of equipment to be removed because clinical practices have changed. I think it’s much more the older equipment that you’re seeing getting replaced with newer stuff that is more in line with clinical practices.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: You were talking about the lack of planning and having to adopt a longer term planning process. Some are doing three-year capital plans and others there has been no evidence that they’re doing any. What is a reasonable amount of planning? Is it a three-year plan? Is it a five-year plan? How do we do that under the current way we budget in the province, which is a year-by-year budgeting process? It’s a big question, I know.
MS. COLMAN-SADD: It is and certainly I think long-term capital planning is challenging, for a variety of reasons. There’s the fact that because it is a province and government, it is a one-year horizon in terms of what’s approved for your budget. There’s not an excess of funds to put into the system, so that’s always a challenge as well.
I think particularly that second challenge of shortage of funds, it’s really important to do long-term planning and whether it’s a three-year or a five-year window, I think, is really up to the system and what the system decides works best for it.
But that long-term planning is really key because then you have a sense of what’s coming up and what we’re going to need funding for in upcoming years. Hopefully, if you start getting some utilization data and focusing on other areas where there are cost savings available and whatnot, then you can kind of take a more long-term view and say, if we do these things now, we’ll save some funds, and perhaps that will give us a little additional funds next year. So even though you don’t have an exact approved amount, you should still have a plan in place, from a strategy perspective, that would take things out over either a three-year or a five-year window.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Does that ensure that future expenses don’t become more expensive as time goes on? If you defer a piece of maintenance or defer a replacement, I mean, what’s the future cost of that piece of equipment or that work going to be done? Will that kind of budgeting try to help that? I know it probably won’t fix it but in the example - and I know the NDP will probably use this one - the issue of a $100 million hospital that ends up being a $187 million hospital, does that help out in the end, having that longer term view of things?
MS. COLMAN-SADD: I think you’re right, the longer term view obviously won’t fix everything and make sure that every bit of preventive maintenance that needs to be done gets done and that nothing gets deferred. But it does give you that opportunity to look at things and to maybe say, when you’re taking that longer term view, well, this piece of infrastructure that really requires some repairs today is likely going to require a complete replacement if we don’t do something with it in three years. So maybe when you’re looking at those three years, it sort of forces you to give much stronger thought to the preventive maintenance at an earlier point, because certainly you’re right, when preventive maintenance does take place on a timely basis, it tends to cost the system less than deferring things and having to sometimes fix in an emergency or replace.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Seeing the three committees that we have for this amount of work, is there a better process to sort of amalgamate that into one or is there a central office that could be used? By the look of it, it’s sort of all over the department of how they do their capital planning. I apologize, I don’t remember if there’s a recommendation in there of consolidating some of those things, to make it more efficient.
MS. COLMAN-SADD: There is no recommendation related to consolidating them. I mean I think it’s up to the department how they choose to carry out their approval and their review of the projects that the district health authorities submit. I think what’s really important in that area is to get the districts involved because you get the buy-in, obviously, from them at that stage, to make sure that they’re aware of the criteria and what the provincial priorities are because, for example, with the equipment area, districts have no idea how the Department of Health and Wellness is going to score them, so a district could score something as its highest-ranked project and it might not get funded because it doesn’t rank high at all in relation to other projects with how the department is scoring it.
I don’t think that does anybody any good. I think if everybody knows what the provincial priorities are and how things are going to be scored, then districts can make a more realistic assessment of their projects as they’re submitting them.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: All right, changing a couple because I’ve got only a few minutes left here, I think. Just going to the issue of home-schooling for one quick second. We’ve heard a lot over the last number of years on the student information system at the Department of Education. I’m wondering, how could that system maybe be used to track students when they’re being home-schooled? I mean at some point we’ve got to know who they are, and sometimes they leave in Grade 3 and they come back in Grade 6 and things like that. Could that information system be used a little more appropriately? Who holds that data for that student information system? Does each district have that or is that held centrally here in Halifax?
MR. LAPOINTE: I’ll ask Mr. Spicer to answer that.
MR. SPICER: Thank you. Yes, our report makes some recommendations on using that system better. Right now each regional school board has access to its student information and, of course, the Department of Education would have access to all of the information. We have made recommendations that it is a logical tool to use to track students moving either within school boards from home-schooling to a school board and vice versa. The information is there and it certainly could be used much more effectively to track students.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I was just wondering because we hear a lot about that student system and God forbid that I make a suggestion this way because I’m married to a teacher, so if I actually suggested to her that she do a little more work in tracking some students, it wouldn’t be great at home, but there you go. I’m just trying to eat up some time here.
Looking quickly at the IT systems, how do we balance the information flow of having a really good EMR or medical records system and protecting the information of our public? There is a tremendous balance, I think, between these two issues of how we make sure that the system - and I worry about the health care system that if they get pushed upon that they’re going to back away and ultimately make things more secure, but then Nova Scotians won’t have access to EMR. How do we balance those two competing priorities on the recommendations that you have here today?
MR. LAPOINTE: We’re not proposing and wouldn’t want to propose that the health authority implement all kinds of controls that will slow down health delivery, or would interfere with health delivery. Most of what we have in the chapter would simply make things more secure, have better processes, but not interfere with physicians in the hospital actually delivering and that’s not certainly anything we would ever want to propose.
I think it’s quite feasible to improve the process, to make sure that medical records for patients are secure with things like the access that we discussed before and still keep it very efficient.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, the time in this round for the PC caucus has expired. We’ll move back to the Liberal caucus, and Mr. Gaudet.
HON. WAYNE GAUDET: Mr. Chairman, I want to focus on the audit on home-schooling. I’m just looking for some clarification. In your audit you indicated there were approximately 850 students registered for home-schooling. Do we have a breakdown as far as what group of students are involved, as far as elementary, junior high, or senior high kids? Do we have those types of numbers?
MR. LAPOINTE: I’ll ask Mr. Spicer to deal with that, please.
MR. SPICER: The department would likely have that information. I don’t have the information with me here.
MR. GAUDET: Do we know from those students if the majority are from rural areas or if they’re from urban - do we have a breakdown of those? Are more students involved in home-schooling from the city than there are from rural Nova Scotia, for example? I’m just curious.
MR. SPICER: Again, the department would probably be the best to answer that, but from the files that we looked at there’s, of course, based on the numbers in the HRM there are a lot of home-schooled children in the HRM. There is also a sort of proportionate number in the other school boards as well - they seem to be rural/urban. As was mentioned here earlier, there are a various number of reasons why kids home-school and some of them may be distance, but there are also reasons, for religious reasons they may be home-schooled, they may have issues within the school for bullying, as an example, or perhaps any other deficits they may have that doesn’t allow them to go to school on a regular basis, there are a number of reasons as why.
MR. GAUDET: That leads me to my next question. Does the department have any data as far as why students are registered with home-schooling? You touched on bullying and I was just curious as far as why students in Nova Scotia are registered in the home-schooling program? Did the department provide you with those reasons?
MR. SPICER: Just anecdotally, through our discussions, that there are a number of reasons why kids may participate. In each individual file there would be some information on that child, but the system that they have now doesn’t - not that we’ve seen at least - generate those types of statistics. They could probably go through and figure it out if you asked them.
MR. GAUDET: As far as home-schooling, is it available to every student in Nova Scotia or are there guideline specifics that basically restrict, I guess, students from actually signing up for home-schooling? I’m just curious.
MR. SPICER: Every parent in the province has the right to home-school their child, if they wish.
MR. GAUDET: I think everybody, including the Department of Education, want to make sure that every student in Nova Scotia receives the proper education. It was kind of interesting reading in your little summary book here, “The Department of Education is failing in its responsibility to protect the education rights of children enrolled in the provincial home schooling program.”
I thought that was a very strong assessment - the department is failing. Would you recommend that home-schooling should continue or should be abolished? I’m just curious.
MR. LAPOINTE: No, we’re not making any judgments about the value of home-schooling as to whether it’s good policy or bad policy; we don’t go that route. Neither do we make any assessments as to whether individual students are, in fact, receiving good education or not. Our entire report is focused on the responsibility of the Department of Education to look after the children’s rights and that is the right to an education.
Yes, it is a strong conclusion that they have failed to do so, but I think if you talk to the department they would, in fact, concur. They don’t disagree with our report. If it’s a policy decision of government to allow the right to home-school - if they’re going to do that, then they need to have a sufficiently robust program to do what has to be done and that’s what is lacking now.
MR. GAUDET: I’m just curious - did the Department of Education agree with your findings that the department is failing students that are enrolled in home-schooling?
MR. LAPOINTE: They agreed with all of our individual findings. They didn’t dispute our report.
MR. GAUDET: I heard here this morning, in responding to an earlier question - you indicated that the department doesn’t know if students who are enrolled in home-schooling are receiving a proper education. I presume, again, that during the audit the question was put to the Department of Education staff. I’m just wondering what kind of response did you receive with that question - do you feel that students enrolled in the home-schooling program are receiving a proper education?
MR. LAPOINTE: Well, the fact is that the department can’t really answer the question. You can only go to the files on individual students, to the databases of information that are there, to the reports that are submitted by parents. From all that information, you can’t make any satisfactory conclusion about the state of education for these students overall or with any particular individual.
MR. GAUDET: I’m looking at your Recommendation 2.4. How does the department know if home-schooled students are achieving appropriate learning objectives? Does the department do some testing? How do we measure the outcomes for these students if they are achieving? When does the department decide it’s time for a student to move up to the next level?
I guess what I’m trying to find out, if the department is failing, at the same time how can the department justify if students enrolled in the home-schooling program - obviously there’s some kind of testing involved. I’m just curious, what does the department do in order to more or less decide when a student is actually meeting certain targets, certain objectives?
MR. LAPOINTE: I would say they do not, in fact. They don’t have targets or objectives, as far as students. They don’t have outcomes. They don’t have reports from parents sufficient to be able to judge and they don’t do testing.
MR. GAUDET: So again, I’m trying to understand what kind of guidance is given out to parents who are signing up their children for home-schooling. Isn’t the department providing those parents with some clear guidance as far as what needs to be covered at home? What objectives need to be met before students are moved to a different level?
MR. LAPOINTE: I would say no, they’re not.
MR. GAUDET: There’s no guidance given to parents? Students just sign up or what?
MR. LAPOINTE: There is some guidance on the Web site; we don’t feel it’s adequate. As well, there are private-sector programs for home-schooled children but these are not assessed by the department either.
MR. GAUDET: Now we heard earlier that parents can actually ask for help from the department with home-schooling. I’m just curious, what kind of help is available? Part of the process for a parent, do you go through the department, do you go through the local school board, do you go to the nearest school in the neighbourhood, around home? Once a parent and a student sign up for home-schooling, are they practically on their own? Is anybody working with them? Is there anybody assuring that they are being assisted in any possible way?
MR. LAPOINTE: Well, put it this way, there are two individuals at the department who run this program and they are hard-pressed to manage the paperwork involved in registering registrations and receiving reports and putting them into files.
As to actual assistance to parents in teaching their children, I’m not sure if there’s anything available - certainly not from the department.
MR. GAUDET: Okay. I recall back in my earlier days when I was teaching, over 20 years ago, we had not that many students at our school who were following home-schooling, so I presume home-schooling has been going on for years in our province.
I fail to understand, you know, the department is actually failing our students who are actually enrolled in a home-schooling program, especially with this system being in place for so many years. I’m sure the department has been hearing from schools, especially where we have students who are enrolled at home and then decide at some point to return to school or go back to home. I’m sure the department has been receiving a lot of feedback throughout our province as far as what’s working, what’s not working, where the folks should be placed, if additional resources should be provided.
I’m just curious from your audit, did the department feel that they’re actually offering home-schooling to our students? Does the department feel comfortable with basically the system that’s in place? Naturally, they didn’t dispute the fact that you recommended that the department is failing our students who are enrolled in the program. I’m just wondering, as far as the department themselves, do they feel that this entire system needs to be overhauled? I’m just curious.
MR. LAPOINTE: I can say that I don’t know how the people in the department felt before we went in in prior years about this program. I know it has been this way for some time, but our discussions with the department on this indicate that the department does view this as a serious matter. Whether they were comfortable with it before or not, they’re not comfortable with it now and certainly by the indications they’ve given to us, they’re committed to improving it.
MR. GAUDET: In your audit did you get a chance to go outside the Department of Education to receive some feedback or evaluations from school boards, or from schools, somebody outside the department? Did you get a chance to drill further into the home-schooling program?
MR. LAPOINTE: We focused on the department, but I think I can ask Mr. Spicer to talk to that a little bit.
MR. SPICER: As part of the audit procedure we did go out and talk to some of the directors at the regional school boards, trying to understand what the school board’s role is in home-schooling, what happens when a child leaves the public school system and goes into home-schooling and/or comes back. That’s where we learned that when a child comes back from a home-schooling program to the public school system, they are tested at that time at the public school system to see where they stand, what areas they may be weak and where they may need some additional resources.
We also learned about what communications may be happening from the school board back to the department with respect to home-schooling. We talked to four regional school boards during the audit.
MR. GAUDET: I’m glad to hear that you’ve certainly gone outside the department. Did the audit get a chance to talk to some of the students, especially the senior high kids that are involved in the home-schooling program, to try to get some feedback from them? Are they comfortable, are they pleased with the program, would they recommend changes to the program? I’m just curious, were students involved with the audit?
MR. CHAIRMAN: We’ll hear the answer and then that will be the end of this round.
MR. SPICER: No, we didn’t talk to specific students as part of the audit. We basically went to the school boards and the management at the school boards just to see what involvement they have with the program.
MR. GAUDET: Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. We’ve now finished two rounds for all of the caucuses. I understand the NDP is going to waive its opportunity in this round, so perhaps we can move on to the business of the committee in just a moment. We’ll finish a little early.
However, before we do that, I would invite the Auditor General to make any summary comments he might want to offer to us.
MR. LAPOINTE: Certainly, thank you, Mr. Chairman. In closing I would just simply say that my staff and I have appreciated the opportunity to discuss our report with you today. This committee’s work is an important component of government’s accountability framework and we’re pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to it. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much, and thank you very much to you and your staff for being here today and for your prompt and fulsome answers to the questions.
We will turn now to the business of the committee, we have a few items. The first is listed as approval of the Record of Decision. What that means is the report from the Subcommittee on Agenda and Procedures with respect to topics coming forward in the future. Unless there are any changes, I would entertain a motion to accept it. Mr. Whynott.
MR. MAT WHYNOTT: Mr. Chairman, I move the adoption of the Record of Decision from the Subcommittee on Agenda and Procedures, starting January 9th and going, it looks like, many weeks into 2013.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes, and I should note that several of the topics have not actually been scheduled yet and, as usual, scheduling will depend on the availability of witnesses and, as usual, we will leave that in the hands of the clerk to schedule.
So there’s a motion, is there a seconder? Mr. Younger, thank you very much. Is there any discussion about this?
If not, thank you very much. I take it that all are in favour, is that right? Okay, we accept that list - thank you - and invite the clerk to work on further detailed scheduling. That’s the first thing.
Second is just to note that we have received a letter addressed to the committee from the Department of Health and Wellness about Infection Prevention and Control. The letter is dated December 6th. I think all members should have this letter from the deputy minister in front of them. Unless there’s anything that arises from that, I take it that this will be for information of the members of the committee.
The next item is a slight change in scheduling. Our meeting for December 19th is going to have to be postponed and rescheduled to February 6, 2013. Could the clerk just remind me of why that is?
MRS. DARLENE HENRY (Legislative Committee Clerk): Well actually there’s a caucus that’s not going to be available on that day, so they won’t have any representation.
MR. CHAIRMAN: All right, so some people are not available for the meeting that day. Thank you.
Our next meeting date then will be on Wednesday, January 9, 2013. We will start that day with an in camera briefing by the Auditor General and his staff at 8:30 a.m. and continue then with witnesses from the Department of Health and Wellness at our usual time. The topic will be long-term care.
Before we break, I just wanted to note something that I think might be implied in the in camera briefings. These, I think, are obviously not decision-making meetings, they are essentially briefings. The reason I flag this is just to make it clear that I expect that not all members of the full committee may attend the briefing. Therefore, I just wanted to make it clear that there wouldn’t be any formal decisions made during the briefing session. So unless there are questions about that, we’ll perhaps move on.
Are we ready for adjournment? Is there any other business before the committee?
A motion to adjourn from Mr. Younger, thank you. We stand adjourned, thank you for your help.
[The committee adjourned at 10:43 a.m.]