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It is self-evident that global warming is a continuing problem, and the Government and the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom need to support measures that tackle the problem and make our communities more sustainable. There are certainly measures
that we can take which will help to achieve those objectives and aims. Without a doubt, we need to look not only at our own lives, but at our public bodies and institutions to see how we can deliver a strategy to help us make more responsible choices on sustainable development. We need to take account of long-term sustainability. The Government are committed to that, and we need to ensure that we take a lead on that in government so that we meet sustainable objectives and set a framework to encourage others, particularly public bodies, to do so as well.
The new clause gives a power to the Secretary of State to put a statutory duty on public authorities. It sends a strong signal from the Government that we are serious about tackling global warming, encouraging sustainable development and making those objectives a reality, not just in government, but in other public bodies in Northern Ireland. The policy will allow for the transfer from the Department of the Environment to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister the ability to set sustainable targets. I shortly expect to consult further on what those targets and objectives should be.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): The Minister will be well aware that, in his home nation of Wales, the National Assembly has a statutory duty to promote sustainable development. Given that he has referred to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly having the power to designate other public authorities, and in the light of his good wishes for the re-establishmentone hopesof the real Northern Ireland Assembly, why is there no provision for the Assembly to have the duty that there is in Wales to promote sustainable development?
Mr. Hanson: The hon. Lady is accurate. The National Assembly for Wales has a statutory duty on that basis. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has shown, from the Governments perspective, that we wish to promote sustainable development. Subsection (3) allows for public authority to mean
any other person designated for the purposes of this section by order made by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
The Northern Ireland Assembly can consider that. The Government have tried to set down objectives for local authorities and other public bodies. We have left open the opportunity for other persons to be designated. If the Assembly wants to have a statutory authority, it can examine those matters and discuss them with the Northern Ireland team.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I offer a broad welcome to the new clause. There is strong support in the community for the active commitment that the Secretary of State in particular is showing to moving the sustainable development agenda forward. It is clear that the new clause spins out of the sustainable development strategy launched last week. The Government are moving quickly to translate their commitments into legislation. That is welcome. I note that that contrasts with the Governments long-standing
commitment to consider issues such as the powers of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. They are still reluctant to address such things in the Bill, yet something new can quickly spin into it. Perhaps the Minister will address that.
Some of the details could be fine-tuned, in particular when it comes to putting things into practice. Hon. Members might know from what I have said before that I am not sure that putting sustainable development and its co-ordination into the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is the best way of ensuring that the necessary co-ordination takes place. There is already a clutter of responsibilities in that Department that are not easy to manage in terms of co-ordination and liaison. This could add to the difficulties.
My experience of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister working with other Departments is that things can be cross-cutting, but they do not achieve the benefits of cross-cutting co-ordination. I hope that there is enough room for us to revisit that so that the Assembly and a restored Executive can make the best, most competent and most appropriate provisions for a rigorous approach to sustainable development by Government and non-governmental bodies.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I agree with the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). Generally speaking, the new clause is uncontentious and will be broadly welcomed, but I want to tease out some details.
Sustainable development is new to the Bill and was not discussed on Second Reading or in Committee. One of the difficulties of a miscellaneous provisions Bill is that we might have to deal with things that come almost out of nowhere and at any stage, whether it is in Committee or on Report. Nevertheless, sustainable development and the aims for public authorities are laudable.
A public authority must, in exercising its functions, act in the way it considers best calculated to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development...except to the extent
that it considers that any such action is not reasonably practicable in all the circumstances of the case.
As we know, a get-out clause is always written in for such matters. What examples does the Minister have in mind? What circumstances could a public authority use as a means of avoiding action that it might otherwise take?
Mr. Hanson: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. The new clause is a framework clause to give the Secretary of State the power to set guidance for local authorities. It is the intention of the Secretary of State, via the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and myself, as the Minister responsible, to consult on a range of things to do with the implementation of the new clause in due course. There will be an opportunity for the specific targets and responsibilities of local authorities, and for the Secretary of States relationship, to be determined.
Mr. Dodds: I am grateful to the Minister. He refers to something that I was going to explore: the purpose of the new clause. He talks of giving the Secretary of State certain powers. Perhaps he can clarify that. Is it not the case that, under the terms of the new clause, public authorities, whether they are Northern Ireland Departments or district councils, will immediately be subject to the duty? It does not require a further order by the Secretary of State. The powers that he is taking relate to introducing an Order in Council to allow the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to designate other bodies. That is significant because, when the new clause passes into law and receives Royal Assent, Northern Ireland Departments and local authorities will be subject to its provisions from that time forward, without the need for any further action. That is a major innovation .
To my knowledge, there has not been much discussion in the council of which I am a member in Belfast about the duty and obligation that will be imposed. I would be grateful if the Minister would say what discussions have taken place with local authorities in Northern Ireland on that issue. What will the cost implications be for local authorities? What assessment has been made of that? We are all aware that all this is important, but clearly there are costs involved and it is important that we understand that, too.
Today we may pass legislation that is entirely laudable in its objectives, but people may come to us afterwards and say, We could have done with a lot more discussion about what it will mean in practice. I invite the Minister to address some of those issues.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): We certainly support new clause 1 and amendment No. 1. Sustainable development is clearly an important aim for public authorities and we support the Government placing a duty on public authorities to achieve sustainable development. I want to raise a similar issue. Are the Government considering placing a duty on public bodies to promote the shared future agenda? It is now over a year since the Government published their framework document, A Shared Future. Although that document was strong on vision and principles, it was light on policy specifics. At that time, the Government made commitments to publish the first in a series of shared future action plans in the autumn of 2005. That is now well overdue. Although the Government have freely used the concept of the shared future in speeches, there seems to be a lack of specifics. Surely that should be a priority for public bodies in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Minister can explain what the Governments intentions are on the shared future agenda.
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful for the broad welcome for the measure from hon. Members on both sides of the House. As I said, on 9 May, the Secretary of State outlined his vision of a sustainable development strategy for Northern Ireland. That backs up the Governments £59 million package of measures to help to support a range of initiatives on sustainable development in Northern Ireland. The principle today is that we give the Secretary of State a power to place that duty on local councils.
As I indicated in an intervention, I inherited the post of Deputy First Minister and First Minister a week ago following the internal reshuffle in Northern Ireland. It is our intention to look at how we can consult onthe issues that the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) mentionedthe practicalities and what the duty means in practice. We want to ensure that we encourage local authorities and other public bodies to act in a sustainable way. That will include looking at recycling, energy conservation and a range of issues to help to build a sustainable Northern Ireland. I accept fully that there may in due course be cost implications. In due course, duties may be placed. It is my intention and that of colleagues, following the Secretary of States announcement, to look at the issue of guidance and what the provision means in practice, and to issue that for consultation with local authorities as part of examining the matter in more detail.
in exercising its functions, act in the way it considers best calculated to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.
Mr. Hanson: That is a similar point to the one that was made by the hon. Member for Belfast, North. I intend in broad terms today to get the support of the House for a sustainable development strategy for Northern Ireland and for the measure to place a duty on local authorities to contribute to that. Having inherited this post some seven days ago, I want to consult on how that duty will operate in practice, what the relationship is and what the targets are. I want to examine that in detail so that we can get collective ownership of those targets, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
I hope that it will be of help to the hon. Gentleman when I say that the Northern Ireland Local Government Association has been an active stakeholder and participant in helping to draw up the strategy that the Secretary of State launched on 9 May. The councils living more sustainably working group has also been involved in the consultations to get us where we are. However, more guidance is needed. Today, I hope that the House will support the principle of sustainable development generally.
The Government take the whole question of the shared future programme and the A Shared Future document extremely seriously. I hope that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) knows that the Secretary of State in the past fortnight has relaunched that document. It is our intention, while we hold office in the direct rule Administration, to ensure not only that are we advocates for a shared future in Northern Ireland as a whole but that we look in detail at how to implement A Shared Future in government in Northern Ireland.
With the mini re-shuffle in Northern Ireland, I assumed responsibility for A Shared Future some eight days ago. I intend as part of the ministerial team to look at how, in what I hope will be the short time I
hold this post in the Assembly, to drive forward that agenda to meet our objectives. We may disagree on this, but I believe that we cannot legislate for A Shared Future in that way but that we need to examine how we can put it into practice in due course. I will look at the strategy and take that on board. I am happy to discuss with the hon. Gentleman outside this place his partys views on that matter, as I am with any others, but the whole ministerial team is committed to ensuring that A Shared Future operates in practice.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is right that Wales has Executive power vested in the National Assembly. As I have said, the new clause will allow for further public authorities to be designated for the purposes of the duty. I reconfirm that it is open to the Northern Ireland Assembly in due course to make those requests accordingly. I hope that the Assembly has an early opportunity to do that. I hope that hon. Members can support the new clause. I take on board the points that have been made, but hope that hon. Members will support it and await the guidance in due course.
Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): I congratulate the Minister on his elevation to the post of First Minister. I hope that he brings the poise, charm and personality that he has shown in the past 12 months to that office, too.
Like my colleagues, I welcome the commitment to sustainable development but the biggest difficulty for me is the deep concern at the measure coming suddenly at us and perhaps us not having time to think it through. The biggest offenders in opposing or obstructing sustainable development in Northern Ireland are Government Departments, particularly the old Department of the Environment, which is now split up into the department of environment, the department of regional development and the department of social development. Will this legislation do anything to ensure that Government Departments, particularly the department of regional development, will use recycled building materials in Government contracts? Until now, Government have refused to allow recycled materials in Government contracts.
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind comments. I think that that is the nicest thing he has said to me all year and it is only the fifth month of the year, so we are doing quite well. From my perspective and that of the Government, the key objective of the Secretary of State in requesting this power and in promoting sustainable development is to examine the issues in terms of not just public bodies outside central Government but central Government themselves.
My hon. Friend made a suggestion with regard to recycled building materials. I am sure that such issues can be examined by Government Departments. We intend simply to put at the heart of government the question of sustainable development, including a range of measures on which central Government will work on over the next few weeks and months until the Assembly, I hope, takes on such responsibilities. We will use guidance and examination to encourage other public bodies to undertake such activity. Without commenting on specific proposals, I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell)
that there is a central Government drive to create sustainability in central Government and other public bodies. We are open to suggestions as to how we achieve that, but it is imperative that we undertake such a drive. For the reasons that I have outlined, I commend the new clause and amendment to the House.
(2A) The Secretary of State shall not lay before Parliament under subsection (2) the draft of an Order amending Schedule 3 so that a devolved policing and justice matter ceases to be a reserved matter unless
(b) the resolution is passed by the Assembly with the support of a majority of the members voting on the motion, a majority of the designated Nationalists voting and a majority of the designated Unionists voting.
provided that they have first secured the consent of the nominating officer of the political party to which each member belongs.'.
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