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Third Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 26 November 2002
[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]
Draft Local Government
(Northern Ireland) Order 2002
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela Smith): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. McWilliam, and I look forward to you stewarding the Committee with your customary fairness and diligence. This is my first appearance as a Minister before this Committee.
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.
The draft order, which was laid before the House on 15 November 2002, is short. It puts in place a new methodology for distributing the resources element of the general grant that is payable to district councils in Northern Ireland. It also extends district councils' powers to promote the economic development of their areas, and it allows them to engage—if they so wish—in community safety activity through community safety partnerships. I hope that they will choose to engage in that; the early indications are that they have responded very positively.
The order closely reflects the Bill that was debated by the Northern Ireland Assembly, prior to its suspension. We hope that the Assembly will be up and running again as soon as possible, we aim to ensure that that happens. The Bill was considered by the Assembly's Environment Committee, which subsequently published a report on its findings on 3 October 2002. The order addresses the concerns of the Committee, which I commend for its scrutiny of the legislation. Its report indicated that its members were content that their recommendations would be taken on board, and that they did not propose to suggest further changes. The Committee expressed its gratitude to the Department for its contributions to its deliberations.
Articles 3 to 7 of the order deal with the payment of grants to district councils. Article 4 is an enabling power for the making of regulations that would set out the methodology and the formula for determining the amount of the resources element of the general grant that is payable to district councils. The resources element is paid only to district councils whose needs exceed their wealth base. The new methodology is much simpler than the current one. It incorporates into the calculation factors that take account of the relative socio-economic disadvantage of districts, in accordance with the targeting social needs—or TSN—principles. It also provides for more regular payments to councils—councils have asked for that matter to be addressed. The existing statutory formula is complex, and frequently results in wide variations between
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years. That makes it difficult for local councils to have effective long-term financial planning. Currently, payments are made quarterly to local councils. The order changes that—payments will be made monthly, as councils requested. There are other changes that will be beneficial to local councils—in particular having payment made in total in one year.
Article 8 amends the economic development powers of district councils. It allows councils to engage in a broader range of activities, including the acquisition and vesting of land for economic development purposes. In addition, the repeal of the existing provisions removes the financial limits on expenditure.
Article 9 gives district councils discretionary powers to engage in community safety activity through voluntary community safety partnerships. Such partnerships are to be established under a community safety strategy devised by the Secretary of State. District councils in Northern Ireland have already demonstrated their strong support for the community safety initiatives; 24 out of the 26 councils have joined voluntary community safety partnerships or are in the process of doing so. I welcome their enthusiasm.
Councils will be given powers to receive and expend monies through the partnerships. They will also be empowered to assist those partnerships, financially or otherwise, in the delivery of community safety functions.
Community safety means preventing, reducing or containing the social, environmental and intimidatory factors that affect people's right to live in peace and free from the fear the crime and have an impact on their quality of life. One potential preventative measure is ''alley gating'', which is a method of limiting access to alleys behind housing by means of gates to ensure that residents, emergency services and other essential users have access, but not those who want to cause antisocial behaviour for residents. In representing local communities, councils will have an opportunity to work with other key stakeholders to devise community safety action plans that, in their judgment, best meet the needs and interests of local areas.
Extensive consultation took place on the issues underlying the order. Two consultation papers were issued on the subject of proposals for a new formula for distribution of the resources element of the general grant. The first paper outlined a suggested new methodology for distribution of the grant. Following that consultation, many of the comments put forward—mainly by local councils—were taken on board, and adjustments were made to the proposals accordingly.
On completion of an equality impact assessment, a second consultation paper was circulated widely to fulfil the Department's statutory requirements under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. District councils were consulted about the proposed amendment to economic development powers and gave overwhelming support for those proposals.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): On the resource allocation changes, were councils given
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exemplifications? Were they shown how they might be affected by the change, or will the matter be determined later? The Minister may want to address that issue at the end of the debate.
Angela Smith: I shall address the matter more fully later, but will say that councils were given indications. However, the relevant factors can change. Resource allocation depends on a council's wealth base and needs base, and those are not set in stone.
Consultation was also undertaken by the Northern Ireland Office on community safety in the context of the criminal justice review. In addition to the formal consultation processes, presentations were made to the Northern Ireland Assembly's Environment Committee, the National Association of Councillors and the Association of Local Government Finance Officers. I believe that the order will address some important issues relating to local government in Northern Ireland.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): May I heartily second the Minister's congratulations to you, Mr. McWilliam, inasmuch as you preside ever fairly over our deliberations. I also congratulate the Minister on her new post. I know that she will bring her special diligence and care to these difficult Northern Ireland affairs.
As I have said in parallel Committees, I would like to subordinate my views to those who represent Northern Ireland constituencies, and I shall, therefore, to some extent defer my judgment on the matters until I have heard from members of the Committee who represent such constituencies. Subject to that, the official Opposition will not delay the provisions, as they are intended for the benefit of the Northern Ireland communities, and it would be an enormous presumption for me to try to distort or reinterpret that in any way. At the risk of returning to my earlier theme, it is for the people of Northern Ireland to decide what kind of local government arrangements they want.
My second theme, which is also recurrent, is that I would like local government in Northern Ireland to match as nearly as may be the kind of local government that we have in Britain. After all, this is one kingdom; I am uncomfortable about any significant disparity in how local government is administered throughout the United Kingdom. As far as can be, I would like the arrangements in Northern Ireland to match those in England, Scotland and Wales.
Paragraph 25 of the explanatory memorandum relates to impact assessment. It says:
''The provisions of the Order have no implications in terms of cost to business, as they are connected solely to the public sector. A full Regulatory Impact Assessment is, therefore, not considered necessary.''
I accept that. The order relates to the public sector and taxpayers' money being arranged and distributed through public bodies. Paragraph 5 of the explanatory memorandum says that the order would be used
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''to extend the . . . powers of district councils to promote the economic development of their areas . . . and . . . to engage in a broader range of activities.''
I have a poor opinion of the public sector as an instrument of economic development. The private sector and enterprise culture represent a more desirable route toward economic development. It may be not a criticism, but an observation, that municipalities, by their inherent nature, are not part of the enterprise culture. On a scale of three cheers, the most that I can manage is one.
I return to my opening observation. Let those who live in Northern Ireland decide, as best they may, their own governance within appropriate delegations, subject to the authority of this sovereign Parliament.
I give one cheer for a public instrument to promote enterprise. However, that is better left to the private sector, and is better untaxed to allow the sector greater freedom for such activities.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I am delighted to sit under your chairmanship, Mr. McWilliam, and to welcome the Minister. She and I have something in common, although we spell our names slightly differently. I welcome her to her post. I know that she has already made a valuable contribution to the situation in Northern Ireland.
I also welcome the fact that the spokesman for the main Opposition party admitted that Northern Ireland Members might know more about Northern Ireland than others. I regret that I am the only Northern Ireland Member on the Committee. I must, therefore, be careful because I am trying to represent a diverse group of people. A diverse group served on the Northern Ireland Assembly's Environment Committee, which scrutinised the provisions and largely supported them, and I accept the provisions in that sense. I welcome the fact that Her Majesty's Government have seen fit to implement the draft Order in Council that arises from the Northern Ireland study. We are recognising that devolved government is working, which is something that people such as myself sometimes criticise. We support devolution, but several forms of devolution sometimes do not work best for the needs of the people. It is evident, in this instance, that the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland and the Environment Committee have done good work, and that the Minister responsible in that Department supports the measures.
There are three main themes to be addressed. The first is grants to district councils. I must say that I am a little concerned to discover in paragraph 3 of the background notes that
''reliable figures for standard costs were not attainable.''
Does that refer to reliable figures in Great Britain or Northern Ireland? It is near time that we got better figures than those with which we have been working. The fact that reliable figures were not attainable raises a question in my mind.
Paragraph 22 of the order recognises that the formula
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''tends to favour those district councils with predominantly Catholic and Nationalist communities.''
Many, mainly Unionist, councils and—interestingly—Newry and Mourne district council, are not altogether happy with that situation, and it might be appropriate for the Minister to tell us if she is prepared to consider whether changes could be phased in, so as to ease the burden. In Belfast, we have some of the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland and even in my constituency, which commentators glibly say is prosperous, we have three of the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland: Blackstaff, Shaftesbury and Botanic. Where need exists, we must help local councillors and others to deal with that.
I turn now to the second main thrust of the order, which refers to the powers of district councils in relation to economic development. Personally, I think that some of us during the past 30 years have not been fully aware of the role of local councillors in Northern Ireland. I recognise that local councillors here do a tremendous job, too. I am aware that councillors in Northern Ireland can get phone calls at midnight, or even 1 am, from their constituents who want them to do various things. A large weight was certainly placed on the shoulders of Belfast city council in the absence of the devolved Administration, and they regularly became a showcase for Northern Ireland as a whole. I pay tribute to those who have played their role in local government during the past 30 years.
I look forward, in the light of the Order in Council, to the important contribution that local government will continue to make in the future—subject, of course, to the review of local government under the public administration review. I still believe that we in Northern Ireland are over-governed. When one considers the numbers of Members of the Legislative Assembly and Members of the European Parliament, one finds that the ratio between numbers of MPs is level with that in England and Wales, but not in Scotland. It is interesting to bear that in mind when considering whether we might have too many Members of Parliament here.
When we consider the question of 26 local councils, or is it 22—[Interruption.]