Draft Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

[back to previous text]

Angela Smith: Twenty-six.

Rev. Martin Smyth: It is 26. I keep mixing that up with the presbyteries of the general assembly. There are 26 councils for a maximum number of 1,700,000 people. It seems to me that some councils are too small to fulfil their role, especially as that is required by the Order in Council.

Mr. John Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the units of local government in Northern Ireland are not only too numerous, but also too small? Is there a case for a county council structure in Northern Ireland, with fewer, larger authorities?

Rev. Martin Smyth: I speak for myself and not for the Northern Ireland Administration or even for my party. However, I think that my party favours a reduction in the number of councils over the years. I believe that there are too many. Much power was

Column Number: 008

taken back to Stormont, which lost local government the influence that it requires. There should be fewer councils, but they should have better powers.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I caution the hon. Gentleman against giving away something that is hugely valuable to Northern Ireland—having lots of little councils. Will he take heart from the fact that the Isles of Scilly, with 2,000 people, has a unitary authority and services that seem to work pretty well?

Rev. Martin Smyth: There is also a nicer strip of water between the Isles of Scilly and the mainland of Cornwall. However, I do not want to play silly games. I acknowledge that local government has a place. However, if we think of economic development and roads, a small council such as that in Mourne has a role to play but, on its own, I am not convinced that it can develop the structures that the modern world requires. I understand what the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) was alluding to, but we do not even get down to parish council level in Northern Ireland.

District councils have requested these proposals and they will help them to promote economic development in their areas. They should therefore be supported wholeheartedly. I suspect that, when councils start work, they will look for larger grants because their budgets will be insufficient to do some of the work required.

I also want to talk about the powers of district councils in respect of community safety. The Ulster Unionist party is a party of law and order. We acknowledge that Northern Ireland has tremendous difficulties and we are therefore especially pleased to endorse these proposals. The police in Northern Ireland face a tremendous problem with criminality. In addition, the number of road deaths this year—as well as the number of other tragedies related to those accidents—is already above the number for last year. Instead of reducing, the numbers are increasing. We have to acknowledge the safety issue. The Police Service of Northern Ireland cannot operate in a vacuum. It deserves the support and assistance of every group in our society. We welcome these proposals. They will enable district councils to become more involved in community safety, in partnership with the police, the fire service and any and all lawful bodies. I regret that there is still a tendency among some officials, when faced with a difficulty, to recommend that people go to those in the community that they can trust. It is time that we all trusted the people who serve their communities faithfully: the police, the fire services and others.

10.53 am

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I apologise for my late arrival. It seems that there is something so terrifying in this statutory instrument that the Fire Brigades Union has joined with London Underground and the Mayor of London to keep me away. They failed, so I can now make a brief contribution.

I welcome the Minister to her role. We have worked together on Committees before and I am delighted that her efforts back then have led to a much more

Column Number: 009

worthwhile—and perhaps less controversial—application of her skills today.

This proposal seems to be about providing a more consistent and less complex mechanism for the funding of local government in Northern Ireland. For a long time, I have felt the work of councillors to be underrated. I felt that when I was a councillor in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and I certainly feel that councillors in Northern Ireland have been working for a long time with their hands tied behind their back—not least because they have not been able to plan effectively for the long term. This proposal, as far as it goes, seems to be very prudent. I have a slight disagreement with the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). There is a persuasive reason for many of the responsibilities of local councils being in the public rather than in the private sector. In my experience in local government, things that were privatised often became worse.

This is a deviation from what we are discussing today, but, on the question of whether councils should be large or small, I would be concerned if councils were merged, unless they had the support of the councils themselves and of the public. I was very sad when the Conservatives managed to merge Montgomeryshire District Council—which used to be independent—with other district councils to form Powys County Council. A large number of people in the area lamented and very much opposed that. However, that is a matter for another day.

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has pointed out that much of the effect of this proposal will be contained in regulations. It is therefore hard to do more than give a general welcome to it and then keep a watch on what happens next. If the proposal leads to better financial planning and an ability to take account of relative socio-economic disadvantages among districts when considering applications for funding, it will be all to the good.

10.56 am

Mr. Wilshire: I hate formulae of any sort under these circumstances, so I cannot resist the temptation to use this opportunity to see whether the Government can be persuaded to think again. I hasten to add that the views I shall express are my own; I speak for nobody else. On this occasion, I do not intend to make any party political points; I have said all that I am about to say to my own party when it was in government. However, I shall be critical.

I hate formulae for a simple reason: they can mean anything to anybody. I draw the Committee's attention to article 4(4) of the statutory instrument, which contains an attempt to define a formula:

    ''For the purposes of this Article 'formula' includes methods, principles and rules of any description.''

In other words, a formula can mean whatever you like, whenever you like it, however you like it, and as often or as rarely as you like it. If people do not really care for the first definition they receive, another can always be found. Formulae are therefore very imprecise.

A second problem was encapsulated by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), who

Column Number: 010

rightly pointed to the sentence in paragraph 3 of the explanatory memorandum:

    ''It was concluded, however, that reliable figures for standard costs were not attainable.''

That is not a statement of something unusual or something special to Northern Ireland; it is a statement of what is the case everywhere. We have only to think of the number of times that this House has had the opportunity to debate standard spending assessments to do with Great Britain. The debate has always been along the lines of, ''You can't really compare this with that.'' We are being asked to foist upon Northern Ireland a system that is not measurable. As the memorandum says, comparisons cannot be made. In any case, the system would mean nothing even if comparisons could be made. Therefore, the starting point is this: ''We do not know what this means and we do not know how to do it.'' It is therefore not surprising that, over the years, a formula that does not work becomes increasingly complicated as more and more people try to refine it.

We discover that the justification for considering this statutory instrument this morning is that the previous formula and methods have become so complicated as to be unworkable. Once that stage is reached, the usual procedure is to tear things up and start again with something that is simple and comprehensible and that everybody thinks is a good idea. That is exactly what is happening here. However, in due course, it will again be found to be unworkable and unfair, so it will be added to. Then, in two, three or four years' time, if we are still here we will be back in Committee Room 10 being asked to tear up the formula again because it has become so complicated, and being asked to institute something else that could mean anything to anybody and that cannot be based on any comparison of needs because such a comparison cannot be made. We have been round that course many times.

I speak as I do because I spent 11 years in local government—six of them as the leader of an authority—and then spent six years at Brunel university trying to disentangle these sorts of issues. I rather came to the conclusion that it was not possible.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is debating secondary legislation that is not before us because we cannot see it. I draw his attention to clause 4(2).

Mr. Wilshire: I am grateful for that comment, because I was going to come to that point later. Now, I want to turn to paragraph 4 of the explanatory memorandum to see whether the Minister can help us with some explanations.

The Chairman: Order. It is in order to refer to the explanatory memorandum, which has been provided to the Committee as an explanation, but I caution Committee members not to place too much reliance on it. In my experience in the Chair, explanatory memorandums often do not do justice to the actual wording of the legislation that they explain.

Mr. Wilshire: I understand that very well: my point is that some of these things are not easily definable.

Column Number: 011

The articles seek to make the first distinction that needs to be clarified—the judgment of a council's wealth against its needs. They seek to make it clear how that will be organised. I should be grateful if the Minister would say more about how the needs are to be calculated.

The explanatory memorandum states:

    ''Needs are measured by population of a district council . . . relative to the total for Northern Ireland.''

What does that mean? Are we being told that the more people there are, the greater are the needs, or that the fewer people there are, the greater are the needs? Is any account taken of social demography? That must be clarified.

The specific needs have been identified; we are told what they are. Who did the identifying, and what methodology was employed to identify those needs? They are identified as ''deprivation''. I want the Minister to give us the Government's definition of deprivation for these purposes, because it is an emotive word and it might not be the one that we should be using.

We are also told that the needs are identified in relation to ''the influx of population''. It would be useful if we were told why that is, and where the influx is coming from. Are we talking about movements from within Northern Ireland, movements in the island of Ireland, or immigration into Northern Ireland or into the island as a whole? Each of those types of influx raises different issues about the needs of a community.

We are also told that one of the methods for identifying need is to refer to the sparsity of population. Why is sparsity chosen as the index, rather than population density? As the articles focus on economic development, I should have thought that the key point was that the greater the number of people, the greater the need for economic development, rather than the fewer people there are, the greater the need for economic development. Therefore, I wonder whether the density of population, rather than its sparsity, would have been the better way of addressing this matter.

After all of those calculations have been made, we are told that the population data have been refined. That sort of phrase smacks of meaning, ''We will make the calculations, and if we do not like them we will modernise them.'' The order sets out the issue of needs and how they are to be identified, and it then states that there will be a requirement to refine all of that. Why is that necessary in an order of this sort? To me, it suggests that someone has a feeling that the formula will not fit even from day one, and that a bit of massaging will have to take place.

I wish the Minister to offer some clarification on that, because if on this occasion the Government have found a way of making a formula work, that would be a stupendously marvellous achievement, and I would like to know how that trick has been managed. I have serious doubts that they have been able to do that. I have my doubts as to whether this will work. The Government will be following in the steps of previous

Column Number: 012

Governments in trying to make something function as I believe it never will.

Article 6(1)(a) on reductions in general grant says that grants can be reduced if

    ''the council has failed to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the discharge of its functions''.

That seems to be one of those provisions in which the Government state what they will do and what money they will make available, but tuck in part way through the article the means of taking it all away if they do not like what is going on.

Article 6 goes on to say that the Government cannot exercise the power to reduce a grant unless they lay a draft order before the Assembly or, as would be the case at the moment, the House. However, if the Assembly or the House has the temerity to reject it, they will lay another one and will keep up the process until, by a war of attrition, they get what they want. I should be grateful if the Minister would give some suggestion of the definitions of the ''economy, efficiency and effectiveness'' that the Government intend to apply as a mechanism for taking away money that they have given. I would not want the provision to provide a blanket general power that could be used for subjective, rather than properly identified objective, reasons.

Article 8(5) and (6) concerns me. Paragraph (5) says:

    ''In exercising its powers under this Article a district council shall have regard to any guidance for the time being issued under paragraph (6).''

Paragraph (6) goes on to give the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment the power to issue that guidance. What sort of guidance is likely to be issued? What I have experienced in my many years of involvement in Northern Ireland affairs—although the same happens elsewhere—is that if we are not careful, we set up competition between bodies when we give them the power to encourage economic development.

I am not sure that I go along with the hon. Member for Belfast, South, who says that 26 authorities is too many, because I like lots of little authorities. People feel comfortable with that, so we should structure local government in that way, instead of structuring it for the benefit of the bureaucrats who prefer to administer bigger areas. However, there is a danger that all 26 bodies would compete frantically. A limited amount of inward investment can be achieved in Northern Ireland, and if 26 bodies are competing for it, there will be great temptation. Offers of goodies and discounts to get someone to come to a certain area might become so great that the potential benefit of the inward investment would be dissipated by the subsidies offered to persuade someone to come to one little patch in the Province rather than another.

I should be grateful if the Minister would reassure the Committee that steps will be taken to ensure that local councils in Northern Ireland do not start outbidding each other to the point where it becomes rather silly. That is the real risk. On the other hand, sensible, prudent activity of the sort described in article 8(4), such as extending buildings, carrying out

Column Number: 013

works and dealing with access, is tremendous and should be supported. If there is a possibility of sending groups of people to, say, the far east, or setting up trade offices somewhere else on the globe, there is a danger that this well-meaning measure could get well and truly out of hand. I should be grateful if the Minister would either answer those queries now or, if it is simpler, write to members of the Committee.

11.8 am

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 26 November 2002