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1 Feb 2006 : Column 135WH—continued

1 Feb 2006 : Column 136WH

Public Administration Review (Northern Ireland)

4.45 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the review of public administration in Northern Ireland. Whatever anybody might think about the proposals brought forward by the Government before Christmas, there can be no denying the impact that the RPA will have on the administration of Northern Ireland, not only over the next few years but in the foreseeable future. It is therefore vital that we get it right, and I hope that this brief debate will be an opportunity to raise a few of the many vital issues presented by the RPA.

In the absence of devolution, there are few occasions when we can get time to debate such matters at Westminster. Given the huge impact that the RPA will have on Northern Ireland, it is welcome that some time has been given to debate the matter in advance of the various pieces of legislation that the Government will no doubt bring forward. I have to say, however, that the Government ought to have set time aside, either in the House or in the Grand Committee, rather than an individual having to use this useful yet limited mechanism to have such important matters discussed.

The process has seemed at times to be never-ending, and so it may seem a little strange for me to ask the Government to take a little more time over the decision. However, given the long-term impact that the review will have, it is important that the Government get it right. The process was first announced by the Ulster Unionist party Department of the Environment Minister in the Executive and at an Ulster Unionist party conference. It was later adopted by the Assembly Executive. I say that not to associate the UUP with the details of the outcome but simply to record where the process commenced and was shaped. The Government must take ownership of the details of the outcome. In defence of the Ulster Unionist party, because nobody is here to defend it, I will point out that the Government have sometimes employed the argument that because the Assembly began the process it is responsible for the outcome. That, I think, is difficult to reconcile with logic.

We all hope, I believe, that devolution can return to Northern Ireland as soon as circumstances allow. It would be a pity if, because the Government did not take time to listen to the views of those who have been democratically elected in Northern Ireland, substantial time and effort were wasted in proposals that might be scrapped by an incoming Assembly. Making plans without any certainty about whether there will be a return to devolution has not been easy. We all recognise that. However, the review will clearly have an impact on the nature of local government in the Province. What is needed in the absence of an Assembly is clearly more extensive and meaningful than what would be required were devolution in place.

One has to accept that when proposals are brought forward that are likely to effect a huge section of the public sector in Northern Ireland, vested interests will inevitably be at stake. Difficult decisions have to be taken and the Government undoubtedly have to take them. People understand that such a fundamental
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exercise cannot take place without an element of pain. Having said that, I believe that the Secretary of State is making some massive mistakes with some of the proposals that he announced before Christmas. In some areas, the Government are moving in the right direction and the proposed measures seem to be sensible. However, the decisions that they have reached in others are mistaken.

The number of new local councils has been the most controversial of all the proposals in the RPA. I do not believe that many people would argue that we need 26 councils to perform the functions of local government in Northern Ireland, but the reduction to seven is, for almost all of us, a step too far. For a range of reasons, it does not make sense, the underlying one being that that would lack political support in Northern Ireland. Plans with far-reaching consequences which might take years to implement, and will shape the future of local government for a generation, need to command broad political support in Northern Ireland. It is clear that the proposal for seven councils has limited support from those who sought a mandate from the electorate last May. In fact, four—perhaps four and a half—of the five largest political parties in Northern Ireland are opposed to it.

If the Government are keen to see devolution return, why do they want to proceed in a manner that they know to be in direct conflict with what the Assembly would do if it were making that decision itself today, and with what it might do in future? That does not make sense.

This is not simply a DUP concern, but one that is shared by the Alliance party and the Ulster Unionist party and has been voiced by the Social Democratic and Labour party. Indeed, when a leading member of Sinn Fein takes his life in his hands and speaks out against the official republican line, it is clear just how strong feelings are on the matter. The Government used to welcome political consensus in Northern Ireland; now they seem to want to work against it. One of their rather lame explanations for proceeding in defiance of the political views in Northern Ireland was that they were doing so because of the results of the consultation process. That is a novel approach. The Minister will know what the consultation process said about the Government's post-primary education recommendations that relate to her Department, but I have heard no talk from her about that dictating what her policy should be.

More importantly, the consultees who form the majority of those who made submissions represent a small fraction of the community, while those whom the Government regard as forming the lesser part of the consultation have a mandate from the overwhelming majority of the community in Northern Ireland. Moreover, it would be wrong for the Government, as they have done from time to time, to characterise the views of parties in Northern Ireland as being based simply on self-interest.

One of the Government's central justifications for reducing the number of councils to seven is that it will create efficiency. How many dire crimes have been committed for that purpose? That was not an aspiration that the Government had when they designed the Belfast agreement, nor is it consistent with other elements of the RPA. When the RPA was being set up during devolution, my colleagues and I argued that its
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scope was too narrow, and that it needed to encompass the Northern Ireland Government Departments as well as local government and other public bodies.

Why is local government being singled out while the Government close their eyes to the huge political bureaucracy that has surrounded the Belfast agreement: 108 Assembly members, 11 Government Departments, a host of north-south bodies and an equality agenda that bleeds millions of pounds out of public and private sector hands every year? Despite what is being suggested now, I doubt that, by the time the whole process is over, any meaningful savings will have been achieved by moving to seven councils rather than 15 or even 11. Indeed, some council chiefs have already been advised to set money aside to pay for the RPA. Why? We were told that it was going to save money, so why do we need to store up funds to pay for it? The reality is that seven councils will lead effectively to the balkanisation of Northern Ireland and to two large blocks. The approach is not sensible and it will lead to impossible decisions having to be taken about how those councils will be governed and how they will function.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Is my hon. Friend aware that despite the proposal in the RPA to cluster Ards with North Down, Castlereagh and Down district council, the latter is currently proposing to go ahead with a multi-million pound new civic centre? The unnecessary spending spree will cost all ratepayers money. Will he join me in appealing to Down district council to ditch the proposal, because there is no way, on the periphery of this new envisaged council area, that it would be central to where we should be meeting when the proposal kicks in?

Mr. Robinson : I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will discuss that matter separately from that of balkanisation, which is an important issue that she has raised. The Minister and the Government will have to deal with the fallout that will undoubtedly occur because of things being done not only by Down district council but by others.

On balkanisation, as a result of the division into seven that has been suggested, we will end up with a situation where Unionists will be dominant in the north and east while republicans will dominate in the south and west. Alternatively, we will have governance arrangements that will make the simplest decisions virtually impossible to take. Having seven mini-assemblies across Northern Ireland is not likely to prove the most sensible way to take decisions.

Proposals for seven councils will also destroy any meaningful sense of local identity and will inevitably make local representation more remote from those whom the representatives serve. In effect, we will have not local but sub-regional government. Many of the areas being lumped together to establish the new councils will have virtually nothing in common.

There could be no better illustration of that than the head scratching that is currently going on in an attempt to come up with names for the seven super-councils. For instance, what do Lurgan and Portadown have in common with the far side of Newry? I would suggest that the answer is not a lot. The geographical area envisaged for the most westerly new council is huge. Will
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councillors be expected to travel from the centre of the Province to the furthest tip of Fermanagh on council business or from the outskirts of Belfast to the north coast?

A move to 15 or even 11 councils would make it possible to achieve many of the same efficiencies as a move to seven, while retaining a local connection. The Government claim to have reached their position in favour of seven in part, at least, on the basis of independent research and analysis, but I do not believe that these factors, when they are examined closely, outweigh other considerations in making the decision.

I will touch on the issue that my hon. Friend raised, which is not about the nature of the proposals themselves but relates to their consequences, no matter whether we are talking about seven, 11 or 15 councils. The Government must step in with firm regulations about capital spending between now and the transfer to the new super-councils. There is already evidence of major spending by a number of councils in an attempt to dictate where future facilities will be placed by committing expenditure now, knowing full well that it will not be them alone who will have to pay for it, but their neighbours who will be clustered along with them.

My hon. Friend raises the issue of Down district council. Its offices may well need to be improved, but the multi-million-pound development proposed is clearly the kind of development that one would expect for whichever council was to enjoy hosting the new super-council. Down is on the periphery of the area cluster, but perhaps the councillors of Down know the Government's thinking, and know that they are going to change their mind about the seven councils that they have already proposed. The Minister can be certain that if the Government do not stop that practice it will grow, and significant sums will be spent in the coming years in an attempt to spend now and get someone else to pay for it later.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is about time that we told the Administration that any decision they make now will not tie any future Assembly that comes into existence? If an Assembly looks into the matter and believes that the decision is undemocratic and not right, that decision should be changed.

Mr. Robinson : I hope that my hon. Friend and I have got that message across to the Minister. Given the amount of upset that such a reorganisation causes, it is sufficient if it happens once in a generation; that is better than twice. That is why it is essential that the Government carry the political parties of Northern Ireland along with them, rather than going head-on in defiance of the advice offered.

In the context of overall public finance, local government spends a very small percentage of public money in Northern Ireland, yet it has come in for particular attention. So far, the Government have had very little to say about quangos. It will be interesting to hear whether the Government's proposals on them are as radical as their proposals on local government. Over the past 30 years, the lack of democratic accountability
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of those bodies has been disgraceful. It is absurd that those hand-picked by the Government to sit on one of those bodies should have more power than democratically elected politicians.

In Northern Ireland, over the past three or four decades the route to power and to effecting change has not been to get involved in democratic politics and to run for office; it has been to join a paramilitary organisation or sign up for a quango. One need only look at the list of those who have been on more than one quango to see what an industry it has become. Whatever else the Government do, the issue of democratising quangos must be addressed. Where there continues to be a need for quango-type arrangements, it is important that democratically elected politicians make up a majority of those on the bodies.

Much has been said about the potential for savings; little, however, has been said about the costs of setting up and operating the new structures. For instance, the five education and library boards will be reduced to one, but a raft of new bodies will be created. Furthermore, the bodies representing the Province's multitude of education providers are to remain, but with little discernible role. Health boards and trusts are coalescing, but a new tier of local commissioning is to be created. What will be the total for the setting-up and running of those seven primary care organisations?

In light of the Government's eagerness to create efficiencies and save money, one of the most absurd decisions coming from the RPA is that relating to the roads function. I come to this issue as a former Minister for Regional Development, with, I hope, some of the knowledge that that brings. As a Minister, I had the opportunity to meet, and on occasion visit, key individuals on road and transport matters in countries across the world—from Europe, from the USA and from as far afield as Australia and New Zealand.

The unanimous view expressed to me—I heard it from every individual that I talked to about the problems that they faced in relation to roads—was that we should be counting our blessings that we had a unified road service. Many of the difficulties that others faced arose from the fact that responsibility for roads in their jurisdiction had been splintered. The proposal in the RPA has all the hallmarks of doing something for the sake of doing it. In this debate, there is not the opportunity to discuss those matters at length, but I ask the Government to look into the issue again. I believe that the Government are giving the responsibility to local government just to be seen to be giving it more powers. It is not a sensible basis on which to proceed. Those in local government will not thank the Government for it when, if I can use the pun, they are further down the road. The proposal to give roads functions to local government will not create efficiencies, nor will it deliver a better service. The decision flies in the face of virtually every other recommendation in the RPA.

One matter that the Government have not yet decided in relation to the process is planning appeals in Northern Ireland. One of the proposals during the consultation process was that, with planning matters being returned to local government, the Department would take over the appellate function from the Planning Appeals Commission in a manner that is broadly in line with England. I need not tell the Minister
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the difficulties that are faced in relation to planning and some of the decisions that are taken, but the one element of the process that attracts the highest level of respect is the Planning Appeals Commission. There is a suspicion that, because it has been too independent and done its job too well over the years, the Government are taking this opportunity to get appeals back to the Department. That is a mistake. Will the Minister take account of the views that were expressed during the consultation by those who have knowledge of that facet of planning?

Despite the initial announcement on the RPA, I believe that there is still time for the Government to think again about a number of the recommendations coming out of it. It must be clear to the Minister that by working with, rather than against, the political parties in Northern Ireland, it is much more likely that the Government will create arrangements that last another generation, rather than simply until devolution returns. I urge the Government to think again before embarking on a path that will ultimately be reversed, if it is ever fully implemented.

5.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela E. Smith) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) on securing the debate. I know of his concerns and his interest in the review of public administration. I understand what he said about this being a brief debate—I am afraid that the reply will be even briefer, given the time available, but I will do my best to do justice to the issues that he has raised.

Initially, I will make some general comments. The decisions on the outcome of the RPA were announced by the Secretary of State in November. As the hon. Gentleman recognises, the programme of reform is challenging in health, education and, particularly, local government. He is quite right to say that local government is an area of particular controversy. It is worth reminding ourselves why we embark on these changes in the first place. As he quite rightly pointed out, the process was started in June 2002, during devolution, just prior to the Assembly being suspended. It was initiated by the Northern Ireland Executive and it had overwhelming support from the Assembly and its Committees.

All of us regret that, following that, devolution was suspended. It has fallen to direct rule Ministers to take the process forward and I do not think that any of us anticipated that we would be taking it forward to this stage. However, at every stage, the Northern Ireland political parties have been involved in the process, and until the Assembly is up and running that will continue to be the case. Most of the hon. Members here today have met me on issues relating to education. I recall meetings on the RPA with all political parties, in which views were taken forward and comments on education were listened to and taken into account before final announcements were made.

The devolved Administration, like the current Administration, recognised that Northern Ireland is hugely over-administered. There is unanimous agreement that government needs to be smaller in order to be effective. The review is also intended to ensure that taxpayers' money is not spent on bureaucracy and
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administration, but is redirected to front-line services for the public in order to get maximum value for money. Our view—I think that it was the view of the Assembly, as well—is that public services have to be responsive and accountable to the public, who pay for them.

During the debate in the Assembly in June 2002, when the terms of reference for the RPA were secured, a colleague of the hon. Gentleman, Councillor Edwin Poots, MLA, made some comments that bear repetition. He said that

We would all sign up to that and we are firmly of the view that the decisions announced in November will deliver it.

The decisions announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Ministers who have been involved with this are a huge step in improving the development and delivery of public services. To that end, we have been true to the views expressed by the Assembly in 2002.

The decisions radically streamline the whole Administration, whether we are talking about health, education, local government or public services. Those savings are not savings made just for the sake of it; they are made in administration to ensure that we have resources for front-line services. The hon. Gentleman said that it is important that we get it right, and I entirely endorse those comments.

The review process has been highly transparent throughout, with very participative consultation involving key stakeholders, organisations, elected representatives and the wider public. There were two consultation periods, the latest of which was a six-month period. The review team had more than 80 different consultation engagements and meetings, which covered 300 different groups and approximately 1,000 individuals. There was also an extensive research programme, including academic papers and independent research on a wide range of relevant issues, surveys, focus groups and study visits. All that information is published on the review website.

Ministers did not take decisions in a vacuum; they considered all the evidence presented, including that from all political parties. I challenge the hon. Gentleman: he said "whether" there would be a return to devolution. There will be a return to devolution and those issues will be taken up by local Ministers.

The decisions were strongly evidence-based, particularly in relation to the seven-council model. I understand the concerns raised about that, but I am a little concerned sometimes that the debate is about the number of councils. During the meetings I had with the Northern Ireland Local Government Association when I was the Minister responsible for the environment, the question concerned the efficient, effective and economical delivery of local services. We have to consider the functions that we expect local government to deliver, prior to considering the number of councils.

What are the functions, how can we best deliver those in the interests of public services and what number of councils can best deliver this model? All evidence
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pointed to the optimum number of councils being seven. No hard evidence presented counteracted that notion when Ministers made the decision. It is clear that councils need to operate on a much larger scale to maximise the benefits. The hon. Gentleman recognised that; I do not think that he was trying to defend a 26-council model. If we are to maximise the benefits by transferring functions to local government, we need to ensure that there are large enough councils to do that. It is not just a question of efficiencies, it is about increasing the role of local councils and councillors and extending their functions.

There was broad support from across Northern Ireland for the seven-council model. Of the 113 responses to the further consultation document that indicated a preference for the number of councils, 62 per cent. supported seven and 18 per cent.—almost exclusively made up of those in the political establishment—supported 15.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The Minister referred to the responses. Some of us met some of the organisations mentioned, not least those in the community and voluntary sector quoted by the Government as supporting the seven-council model. Those organisations openly admit that they did not consult any local bodies on whether there should be seven councils in principle, or on any of the proposed councils. The hard evidence against the seven-council model will come when boundary hearings are held on the proposed, incongruous, local councils.

Angela E. Smith : If someone responds to a Government consultation and gives a point of view, we do not tend to go back them and ask them how they reached that point of view. If an organisation responds to Government consultation, we accept the response at face value. We would be criticised if we did not do so.
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The evidence that was considered dealt with research into the distribution of the property wealth base; population, social and economic issues and local identity figured very strongly as well. Consideration was given to equality, social need, the population spread and where people live and work. We took account of the views expressed to us by individuals and groups. We felt that the challenge was to ensure that local councils and local councillors engaged meaningfully with the public, so that the public felt engaged.

One of the criticisms made has been of the roles and responsibilities of local government. I am disappointed that no hon. Members here today have said what a good idea it is, or how important it is, that local democracy has been enhanced by strengthening the functions of local government.

The process will require meaningful engagement between councillors and local communities to ensure that local voices are listened to. I understand the points of the hon. Members for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) and for Belfast, East about balkanisation, and how they feel that the proposals will repartition Northern Ireland. I do not accept the argument. People in Northern Ireland live where they live; council boundaries are not going to affect where people live. At present, the majority of people who live in council areas in the west of Northern Ireland tend to vote for nationalist parties and in the east they tend to vote Unionist. Whatever the configuration of local councils, those divisions will remain. That position remains. If there were to be 11 or 15 councils, I do not see how that will make any difference at all to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Strangford.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order.

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