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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation




 
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Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: †

Mr. David Wilshire

†Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
†Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
†Gilroy, Linda (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op)
†Gove, Michael (Surrey Heath) (Con)
†Hepburn, Mr. Stephen (Jarrow) (Lab)
†Heppell, Mr. John (Nottingham, East) (Lab)
†Jones, Mr. David (Clwyd, West) (Con)
†Jones, Helen (Warrington, North) (Lab)
†Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)
†Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Reed, Mr. Andy (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op)
†Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
†Smith, Angela E. (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Walter, Mr. Robert (North Dorset) (Con)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
Gosia McBride, Tom Goldsmith, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee


 
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Tuesday 5 July 2005

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Draft Local Government (Northern Ireland) Order 2005

4.30 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 (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.

The Chairman: I apologise to Committee members. It is your lot—I do not know why the fate has befallen you—to be sitting in the first Committee that I have chaired. I hope we will reach the end in some semblance of order.

Having been told off when sitting down, and told off many times for taking my jacket off without asking, whenever Members encounter me in the Chair they may take off, within reason, what they wish without asking.

Angela E. Smith: I warmly welcome you to your new position in the Chair, Mr. Wilshire. You are the third new Chair under whom I have had the honour to serve this week and I am sure that you will bring your customary wisdom to the role.

This is an important measure that extends the powers of local government auditors and updates and consolidates existing Northern Ireland audit provisions in line with the Audit Commission Act 1998 in England and Wales and also with current best practice.

I may be helpful if I briefly outline the provisions of the order, which addresses issues around accounts and audit. Articles 3 to 8 provide for district councils to produce annual accounts and for those to be audited by local government auditors designated by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They also provide for the chief local government auditor to prepare and keep under review a code of audit practice and to have access to information relating to a council that may be held by a third party.

Articles 9 to 15 provide for local government auditors to produce reports relating to the accounts of district councils and for the consideration and publication of such reports.

Articles 16 to 18 provide for the accounts of councils to be viewed by the public and for objections regarding those accounts to be taken to the local government auditor.

Articles 19 to 21 provide for local government auditors to take action in relation to an item of account that is considered contrary to law, the failure by a person to bring into account any sum that should have
 
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been included, or where a loss has occurred or a deficiency caused by the wilful misconduct of any person, and allows for an application for a judicial review of any decision or failure by a local government body to act if it is reasonable to believe that such a decision or failure would have an effect on the council’s accounts.

Articles 22 to 28 are miscellaneous provisions that, among other things, allow the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to direct a local government auditor to hold an extraordinary audit, provide for an local government auditor to scrutinise council accounts held in a member’s or officer’s own name, provide for the Department to make subordinate legislation regarding councils’ accounts, and enable the Department and the chief local government auditor to instigate studies within local government for improving economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the provision of services.

The order will also introduce a number of miscellaneous provisions to enable district councils to engage in emergency planning, retain receipts from fixed penalties that are levied for littering and dog fouling and regulate businesses carrying out cosmetic and semi-permanent skin colouring.

The consultation document, which included a draft of the order, was widely circulated in Northern Ireland in October 2004. Comments were received from 33 respondents who generally supported the proposal. Some district councils raised concerns about the small number of the order provisions and wanted confirmation that the new powers would be applied equitably and proportionately.

The powers proposed in the order are similar to those already available to local government auditors in England and Wales and they are fully justified in Northern Ireland.

4.34 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire; it is a pleasure to serve under you. Having worked with you in various capacities before, I am sure that it will be a pleasurable, although brief, experience today. I look forward to your chairmanship in future.

The Committee will be aware that it is my policy, as far as it is possible, to quiz Ministers in great detail whenever the opportunity arises, but I do not stretch out Committees just for the sake of it. This sitting will fall into the latter category. I have no intention of detaining the Committee for long. The only question that I want to put to the Minister, who presented this straightforward measure very efficiently, is on article 29 and the powers of district councils in relation to emergencies.

The Minister and the Committee will be aware that there have been concerns in Great Britain about how far powers relating to emergencies should go. What constitutes an emergency is the most important question. Are such powers correctly defined in legislation such as this? I would appreciate the Minister’s explanation about the results of the consultation that was carried out on emergency
 
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planning. What exactly is the line of thinking on article 29? The provision is fairly vague and therefore quite possibly wide reaching. I would appreciate further explanation on it. Beyond that, I have no further questions to put to the Minister.

4.36 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I apologise for my slight lateness in arriving.

The order is not controversial. I will say a little about the process in a moment. The order seems to replicate the Audit Commission Act 1998 and the Local Government Act 2003 in relation to England and Wales, and seems sensible. I examined article 29, just as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) did. In my view, it is sensible to enable a council, which is best placed to make and to implement these sorts of arrangements, to do so in the event of a local emergency. That is all I want to say on the order.

I want to talk about the process, because I am sick and tired of us running Northern Ireland on the basis of statutory instruments. We have no opportunity to amend the orders that are put before us. This order happens to be pretty non-controversial and therefore I imagine it will have a smooth and brief passage through the Committee. Once again, I appeal to the Minister to take seriously the complaints that have been made about the inadequate opportunity for scrutiny of the orders.

When we first started running Northern Ireland on the basis of statutory instruments we were assured that it was only a temporary measure and that, should things carry on in that way, the Government would find a more satisfactory methodology. So far, they have been silent on their alternatives. The order does not cause any problems. However, the Government arrogantly persist to assume that they can expect the co-operation of Opposition parties and individuals representing constituencies in Northern Ireland—in particular to say “Aye” or “Noe”— and to accept that as a reasonable way to govern the lives of 1.4 million people. If that is what the Government think, they are much mistaken. Given the frequency with which we find ourselves in Committees on delegated legislation—there are as many as five in a week—I ask the Government to wake up and smell the coffee, because it is no way to run the Province.

4.38pm

Angela E. Smith: It might be appropriate if I were to comment first on the remarks made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). He might have had a little bit more weight behind his comments if he had arrived at the Committee on time
 
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to hear my remarks on the order. I accept that he might have had business elsewhere. I will address the substance of the points he made.

Lembit Öpik: I find the Minister’s gratuitous criticism of my late arrival completely fatuous. It does not undermine the complaint I am making about the process one iota. I have apologised to the Committee for being late. I do not think that it is appropriate to describe the personal difficulties that I had in getting here on time. I ask the Minister to address my complaints, rather than simply to try to score a cheap point.

Angela E. Smith: The hon. Gentleman protests too much. I said that I would come to the substance of his complaint.

The Government have always accepted that the arrangement is temporary. We would much rather see legislation being made by devolved Assembly. In the absence of that, we have taken over the process in the short term. We will also ensure that we have a substantive consultation in Northern Ireland, so we share the concern that decisions should be taken at local level. My colleagues and I have done everything that we can to ensure that the Assembly will be up and running as soon as possible, so that local decisions can be taken by local Ministers.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury will know that local councils have been carrying out their functions for some time, albeit on a non-statutory basis. The order ensures that there is a statutory basis for the work done by local councils. It is appropriate to pay tribute to the work that councils have done. They have not had legislative backing, but they have sought to do everything within their powers to deal with civil contingencies.

The hon. Gentleman described the order as wide ranging, but it does not go as far as it does in the rest of Great Britain, for the obvious reason that the circumstances are different and it might not always be appropriate for Northern Ireland legislation to replicate GB legislation entirely in this area. I assure him, however, that the order ensures that people in Northern Ireland have the same level of protection as people in the rest of the UK. I hope that he will accept that assurance, and that it addresses his concerns. The order is wide-ranging, but it is not as wide-ranging as GB legislation. It is satisfactory, and it ensures that the same level of protection is provided to citizens of Northern Ireland.

I believe that I have addressed the comments made by hon. Gentlemen, and I urge the Committee to approve the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Local Government (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.

Committee rose at nineteen minutes to Five o’clock.

                                                                                           
 
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