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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Local Government (Boundaries) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Wilshire
Atkins, Charlotte (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) (Lab)
Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)
Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Fraser, Mr. Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
Hall, Mr. Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian (Leeds, North-East) (Lab)
Hermon, Lady (North Down) (UUP)
McCrea, Dr. William (South Antrim) (DUP)
Mallaber, Judy (Amber Valley) (Lab)
Milton, Anne (Guildford) (Con)
Moran, Margaret (Luton, South) (Lab)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Robinson, Mr. Peter (Belfast, East) (DUP)
Smith, Angela E. (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Wallace, Mr. Ben (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Wills, Mr. Michael (North Swindon) (Lab)
Wyatt, Derek (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab)
Glenn McKee, Rhiannon Hollis, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Mackinlay, Andrew (Thurrock) (Lab)

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 18 April 2006

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Draft Local Government (Boundaries) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

4.30 pm
The Chairman: I trust hon. Members had a good recess. I am sure they are impressed to be on duty so early on the first day back.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Wilshire. I welcome you to the Chair and trust that like me you had a good recess. It will not have escaped your attention that a very important statement on Northern Ireland is being made at this moment, which is no doubt keeping Unionist Members and members of the Social Democratic and Labour party away from the Committee. Given the importance of that statement and of the proposal, is it possible to adjourn the Committee until the statement has been completed?
It will not have escaped your attention either,Mr. Wilshire, that next week two very important Bills on Northern Ireland will be going through the House. This is not the best way to consider such important measures. Can this sitting be delayed at least until the statement is over?
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Wilshire, through you I ask what possible rationale there can be for forcing so much non-urgent legislation into such a short space of time, making it manifestly impossible for the Opposition to do its job of holding the Government to account for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman highlighted.
The Chairman: I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). However, Standing Orders make it absolutely clear that the Chair has no authority to alter the start of the sitting. The remedy is to take the matter up through the usual channels.
The point about so much business being taken at the same time is not relevant to our proceedings, but even if it were, the answer would be the same: it is a matter to take up through the usual channels.
4.32 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela E. Smith): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Local Government (Boundaries) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.
I welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Wilshire. It is the first time I have been on a Committee of which you are Chairman, although I recall several debates in which we faced each other across the Committee Room. The frustrations of office must be enormous at times, but I am sure you will chair the Committee with your usual wisdom.
A draft of the order was laid before the House on22 March 2006. The order sets the context for the first major review of local government boundaries in Northern Ireland since 1972. It is a highly significant measure that brings local government arrangements in Northern Ireland into the 21st century and is a major step in the Government’s programme to modernise and reform central and local government.
The reorganisation will result in stronger local government and enhanced functions, a significant streamlining of services and better value for money for ratepayers and taxpayers. The order will enable a number of local government districts to be reduced from the present 26 to seven. The new councils are responsible for delivery of enhanced functions and local public services.
The order provides for the appointment of a local government boundaries commissioner and the appointment of staff and assessors. It sets out the rules under which the boundaries commissioner should make his recommendations, provides that local government districts should be divided into 60 wards and for the commissioner to have the flexibility to divide a district into between 55 and 65 wards if he considers it desirable, taking into account the size, the population and the political diversity of the district and the representation of the rural and urban electorate within the districts.
It is worth repeating that this is a major review, which sets the context for the boundaries for the first time since 1972. It is a highly significant measure.
4.35 pm
Mr. Robertson: I have already raised the matter of the Committee being held at the same time as the statement was being made. As the statement has now ended, I hope that we can progress reasonably sensibly. It would have been ridiculous to proceed without hon. Members from Northern Ireland being present. I accept that you cannot do anything about the matter, Mr. Wilshire, but I hope that in the future it can be noted and that an attempt will be made to find an accommodation for measures of such importance.
A statement on restoring the Assembly has just been made, but the order will fundamentally change not only local government boundaries but the number of councils in Northern Ireland. The question that I have to ask from the outset is: why not leave that matter to the Assembly? We have just been told that the Assembly will be set up on 15 May, which is not far away, yet we are rushing the order through, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said.
In the Northern Ireland Grand Committee on28 March, the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) asked whether the decision could be reviewed by the Government if the Assembly were up and running before changes to local government boundaries came into effect. That is a good question, especially as it will be 2009—fully three years—before the new boundaries come into existence, and we are told that the Assembly will be up and running next month.
Many other important changes, including water charges, rating reform and changes to the education system, are being introduced before the Assembly has a chance to discuss and decide on them. There is, though, particular concern about local government changes being introduced before the Assembly has a chance to consider them. I wonder why the order is being rushed through. Again, I reflect the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman.
I understand that the only party other than the Government party that supports the proposal for seven councils is Sinn Fein. Because of that, I wonder whether the Assembly would ever agree to seven councils, just as it might never agree to certain other changes proposed by order. However, it should at least have the opportunity to debate the matter, especially as the review of public administration was initiated by the devolved Assembly when it was up and running.
We believe that the proposal to create seven councils will not be helpful. This is conjecture but, as I said in the Grand Committee, it looks as though the councils will break down into three strong nationalist or republican-controlled councils in the south and west and three strong Unionist-controlled councils in the east, and Belfast will be left on a knife edge. That is how the situation appears to me, looking at what has been experienced so far in the Province.
We accept that the number of councils must be reduced. Currently there are 26, which is far too many, but we would have preferred a number in the region of 11 to 15, rather than seven. That would have balanced administrative efficiency with the retention of local identity. As far as we can see, the number of councils under the present proposals will mean that local identities are lost. An example would involve the creation of a council running from Enniskillen to Cookstown, which would cover a very large area.
We can use the English experience of the 1970s, when creating large councils did nothing to encourage belief in local government or to create responsive local government. Looking back, many of us would regret the way in which councils were changed and created in England in the 1970s and I do not see why we should make the same mistake in Northern Ireland.
Let me return to the point with which I started. In the statement that has just been made, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that some of the issues covered by the emergency legislation
“will obviously be appropriate for consideration by the restored Assembly”.
He went on to say:
“Ministers will naturally be willing to take account of views on such matters”.
However, that does not answer the questions that I am posing. Why not leave the matter for the Assembly to decide? If the Minister rejects that argument and the order is passed today, will the Government review the situation if the Assembly does discuss it and decides differently?
4.39 pm
The public administration in Northern Ireland has evidently suffered from two main interrelated problems. The first is over-government. There are clearly too many bodies and layers of government, often with overlapping jurisdictions, relative to Northern Ireland’s geographical size and the size of the population. To an extent, Northern Ireland is over-governed due to the provision of parallel administrative structures with either the explicit or implicit intention of serving different sections of the same community. Obviously, indirect costs result from the provision of duplicate goods, facilities and services for separate sections of the community, including schools, GPs’ surgeries, job centres, community centres and leisure centres. We have discussed before that huge potential savings are to be made if we can resolve the sectarian tensions that still exist in Northern Ireland. I am sure that those matters will arise in forthcoming legislation, which will be the right place further to debate them.
The second problem, and the one relevant to the order, is the democratic deficit. There has been little local control over decision making and of accountability. The question of whether there is a functioning system of regional devolution is crucial to designing the nature of public administration. The question of whether there is a functioning system of regional devolution is crucial to designing the nature of public administration. Radically different models could emerge in response to the different contexts.
In a sense, therefore, I am concerned that the review has put the cart before the horse. There is evidently still uncertainty over the prospect of restoring the political institutions. Indeed, not one hour ago the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland spoke about the big game plan to try to re-establish a functioning Assembly in Northern Ireland.
My first question to the Minister is about timing. Why are we discussing the order now, when we do not even know how Northern Ireland is to be governed in six months’ time? Is it not foolish to make such radical changes on the assumption that one set of circumstances will prevail over another? Surely this is what we used to call in industry “waste and rework”. If the Government’s desired outcome fails to materialise, we may find ourselves sitting here again talking about various provisions for local government in Northern Ireland.
In connection with that, to proceed with some of the more radical aspects of the review until there is a working and sustainable devolution in Northern Ireland seems to contradict the review itself. In that sense, I am opposed to the order. Although we agree that the number of councils should be reduced, to do so in such a radical way by such a large margin, with so many assumptions contained in the decision when there is no Assembly and no necessary guarantee that the Assembly will work again, does not guarantee a long-lasting, durable and sustainable arrangement. My second question for the Minister is why so many assumptions are being made. How can she justify her decision when she has obviously introduced those assumptions as facts in the arrangements that she proposes?
Thirdly, in the absence of an Assembly there is a much greater danger that seven super-councils, rather than 15 or even 11 councils, could lead to a balkanisation of Northern Ireland, a phrase that was introduced, I believe, by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), and one that is absolutely right.
With the inevitable imbalances in political composition, different councils could emerge as a stronghold for the political representatives of different sections of the community in just the way that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury has outlined today. That will act as a disincentive for moves to create genuine cross-community power sharing, which is surely one of the goals that we all want to see in the months ahead.
Local government is not solely about the local delivery of services. It is about articulating a civic identity, accountability for decisions and accessibility for the public of a political representative system that services their immediate area. Even leaving aside balkanisation, the seven super-councils will have no sense of identity whatever. People will not associate them with the south-east region or north-east region, for example, because the regions will be defined by civil servants and not by the attitudes of the people themselves.
I see that the Minister is somewhat perplexed by that comment, but she knows very well that the subject has been a matter for enormous strife in government re-organisation in Britain and on other occasions. The Labour party opposed that kind of decision-making when it was imposed by a Conservative Administration, so I ask her what has changed. People will not identify with those regions. The sense of identity that does exist in some areas will be lost under such radical restructuring.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I am a little bit confused; perhaps the hon. Gentleman can help. It seems that the Liberal Democrat position is one thing in Northern Ireland and another thing in the rest of the United Kingdom. I thought that the Liberal Democrats were for regionalisation rather thanagainst it.
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Prepared 19 April 2006