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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Martyn Jones
Atkins, Charlotte (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab)
Bailey, Mr. Adrian (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op)
Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs. Claire (Crosby) (Lab)
Dorrell, Mr. Stephen (Charnwood) (Con)
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Eagle, Maria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Godsiff, Mr. Roger (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab)
Hands, Mr. Greg (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con)
Jackson, Mr. Stewart (Peterborough) (Con)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down) (SDLP)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham, South) (Lab)
Singh, Mr. Marsha (Bradford, West) (Lab)
Walley, Joan (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Wareing, Mr. Robert N. (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 6 June 2007

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

Draft North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

2.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.
As far as I can recall, I have not served under your chairmanship before, Mr. Jones, but it is certainly a pleasure to do so. I hope that you will not have to be too hard on any of us: this is quite a technical order.
The purpose of the order, which was laid before the House on 10 May and is made under section 55 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, is to amend the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. The draft order will give effect to an agreement between the British and Irish Governments on the continuing role of the Special EU Programmes Body, which is one of the six north-south implementation bodies set up following the Belfast agreement in 1998, to promote cross-border community co-operation, understanding and action between peoples and organisations in Ireland and in Northern Ireland. It manages the implementation of EU social, economic, reconciliation and cultural programmes worth £608 million, or ,889 million if anyone prefers the euro figure—I know that some members of the Committee might not.
The need for the order can be traced back to a change in the regulations governing the funding for EU programmes that occurred during the suspension of the institutions. Funding for EU programmes and the regulations that govern them are agreed in seven-year cycles, as many members of the Committee will be aware. The new EU regulations for the cycle that began this year contain some differences from regulations governing the previous funding period. Those are differences in terminology, not in the aim of the programmes.
Let me make the situation absolutely clear. In previous funding rounds, the references used in the old regulations were to Community initiatives and Interreg schemes. That terminology will be familiar to hon. Members who have taken an interest in such work. Under the new arrangements, the terminology used instead is “territorial co-operation objective”. We are here to ensure that it is clear that, when the EU refers to a territorial co-operation objective, it is talking about the funds that used to relate to Community initiatives and Interreg schemes. If we pass the order, we will be ensuring that it is clear that, when the Special EU Programmes Body is administering the moneys that it has for the next round in relation to territorial co-operation objectives, they are in fact the old Interreg and peace funds. It is as simple as that.
During the suspension of the institutions, the British and Irish Governments acted to ensure that there would be no concern about the difference in terminology, by reaching agreement on the continued role of the Special EU Programmes Body in an exchange of letters. That agreement was incorporated in domestic law by designating the exchange as a “Relevant agreement” under paragraph 10(3) of the schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000—the Act that provided for suspension. As hon. Members will be well aware, that Act has been repealed and therefore the way in which this slight issue has been dealt with previously by Governments has disappeared; hence the need for the order.
The order will not change any existing function of the Special EU Programmes Body, nor will it add to or remove existing functions. Its purpose is to ensure that the Special EU Programmes Body can simply continue to perform the role that it is there to perform. The body does important work in managing a number of cross-border community initiatives, particularly the Interreg and peace programmes. It will continue to do so under the new round of funding. The order will ensure that the body can carry on that work without any question about its capacity or vires to do so.
The Special EU Programmes Body has fulfilled its role well throughout its existence. All key EU regulatory and expenditure targets have been met, and evaluations show that programme managers are meeting their objectives. Co-operation on EU issues offers clear mutual benefits north and south, and we want the role of the Special EU Programmes Body to be completely clear to all.
The order has the sole purpose of restoring the agreement between the two Governments and ensuring that it will be in domestic law after being lost when the Northern Ireland Act 2000 was repealed.
2.35 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Jones; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again.
I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation of the order and to her officials for going through it with me this morning. As the Minister has said, the order is extremely technical, and I am glad about that because it brings in a couple of bodies that we are not always comfortable with: the cross-border bodies of the European Union. As I understand it, the order will ensure that we get at least some of our money back, and on that basis, I have no problem with it. The order seems fairly straightforward, and I can see nothing in it to which we should object, so I will not detain the Committee any longer.
2.36 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones.
As the Minister has said, this is a technical order that will allow certain interpretations of certain terms inthe agreement between the two Governments on the establishment of north-south bodies to be incorporated into domestic law. It will also ensure that any successor to, equivalent of, or substitute for initiatives that build on the substantive objectives policy areas and activities covered by the community initiatives established within the framework of the EU’s structural funds are considered in the same way.
I am certainly supportive of the order, but I have one question for the Minister. She said that the agreement was lost when the Northern Ireland Act 2000 was repealed and, obviously, it will not be reinstated until the order is passed. Will any problem arise because of the gap in the agreement being in effect?
2.37 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): It is pleasure, Mr. Jones, to serve under your courteous and benign discipline, which I hope will not be visited upon me unnecessarily.
As the Minister has said, this is a technical order that is not very exciting or emotional. None the less, it covers an area that has some exciting potential for development, as has already happened in the island of Ireland as a whole, with co-operation between the north and south in tourism, the infrastructure of roads, medicine, and energy. North-south bodies are bringing a range of benefits to the whole island of Ireland.
I am sure that the Minister was as delighted as I was—as were the people in the north of Ireland—when last January, the Government of the Republic of Ireland announced a national plan that included substantive funding for cross-community projects. The Government of the Republic of Ireland will make a substantive contribution to the plan, together with the Northern Ireland devolved Administration and, presumably, with the help of the Exchequer through that institution. It is yet to be seen what the Exchequer will do in that respect. That is another stepping stone for development.
As I said earlier, the new regime has the potential to benefit the people of Northern Ireland enormously. However, as well as the development offer that resulted from negotiations with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the national plan, we suggest that two further funds be set up: first, a strategic capital fund to support infrastructure and capital spending across the jurisdiction of dedicated contributions from north-south funding, to take account of regional imbalances within the island of Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland. The benefits flowing from that would be excellent.
The second fund that should be looked upon with favour is what I call a services, community and enterprise fund for programmes and services, rather than capital investment, which would help to counter the inevitable decline, as European funding diminishes over the years. The joint funding of north-south projects will be essential.
Thank you for allowing me to address my brief comments to the Minister, Mr. Jones. I hope that the aspirations that engendered the creation of the north-south bodies and ministerial councils will bring to fruition welfare and peace for the people of Northern Ireland, and the island as a whole, and will create greater harmony and a better way of life.
2.40 pm
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): For the record, the Democratic Unionist party opposedthe cross-border implementation bodies set up under the Belfast agreement. We believed that, although it was important to have co-operation between the two countries of the island, such co-operation is not always best pursued through formal bodies, which, first, were costly—I think that those costs are now becoming quite apparent—and secondly, engendered a degree of suspicion because, of course, there were many less costly and less formal, but equally effective ways in which to have co-operation between the two countries on the island.
Now that the Assembly at Stormont is functioning, our desire is that many of the responsibilities of those bodies be returned to the control of Stormont Ministers, who could then co-operate with their counterparts in the Irish Republic, as happened under the Assembly, and which probably led to more effective co-operation than that under the implementation bodies. For many people, especially those in the Unionist community, there is suspicion about the real reason for those bodies. Are they in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland? Are they more efficient? Do they drive programmes better than can two separate Ministers, who might have a commitment to those programmes, or do they have a political agenda?
I have one question about the order, which the Minister indicated is very technical, but I am not sure whether it comes under the scope of the order. It indicates that the terms of the 1999 agreement for setting up the cross-border implementation bodies are being confirmed. However, an anomaly has arisen concerning some of those bodies and the pay of their employees, who all do the same work and are engaged in the same activity. However, owing to differentials that have developed over a number of years, civil servants from the Republic employed by implementation bodies are paid different wages, mileage rates and allowances from those employed in the Northern Ireland civil service. In confirming the original terms of the agreement, does she accept those pay differentials, even for those doing the same job and working in the same organisation? That may well not come under the terms of the order, but perhaps the Minister can confirm that.
My second point is that, if the order is merely a tidying-up exercise and there is no intention to increase the scope of the Special EU Programmes Body, I suppose that it would not be unreasonable. However, I am a bit concerned. Can the Minister confirm whether this is not really an attempt to increase the scope? As has been pointed out by other hon. Members, it will encompass substitutes for the current initiatives. It will also build on the substantive objectives, priorities, policy areas and activities covered. That seems to be more than what the Minister said. She said that it will allow what is going on at present to continue, but it seems to be more a building up and an advancement of what is there currently.
The hon. Member for South Down has eulogised the work of the implementation bodies—with his political background, I would not expect him to do otherwise—but there have been concerns about whether some of the initiatives have been worth while and provided value for money. For example, the social enterprise initiatives have had problems. There seems to be no way under the terms of the order to consider whether the initiatives that have been run need to be continued or whether focus should be directed in some other way. Must we continue with an initiative, just because it has been running, without some objective assessment of whether it has provided value for money?
Although we have concerns about some of the past initiatives, if the order simply represents the regularising of something that already exists, it is less threatening than something that is designed to expand some of the initiatives and introduce new ones. I suspect that it may well be an exercise in finding work for people in the bodies that have been set up, regardless of whether there is still work for them to do. I hope that it is the intention—it was included in the St. Andrews agreement—that a hard look will taken at many of the implementation bodies to see whether we get value for money and whether, as a result of an economy exercise, the funds could be directed in another way. That is work for a different place. I just ask the Minister for some clarification on those points.
2.48 pm
Maria Eagle: We have had a short sharp debate. I shall do my best to answer the points that have been raised by members of the Committee.
I shall start with the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, who did not really have any points, for which I am grateful. It is probably the first and last time that that will ever be the case.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, as usual, had read the order and asked a rather sharp question about whether there was any problem now, given that we have had a gap between when the 2000 Act was repealed and when the order will come into force. I, too, asked that question of my officials. The answer is that there is no problem, partly because this is very much a tidying up and closing of what was potentially a very narrow loophole, but also because the new EU programme’s money is not yet being spent. So the real problem that we could have faced, which we seek to close by the use of the order, has not yet started to happen and would not do so until the autumn of this year or perhaps when the programme’s money starts to be spent, either late this year, which is optimistic, or early in 2008. So we are moving within the time scale to ensure that there is no problem. I hope that that deals with the point made by the hon. Gentleman.
I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for South Down had to say about the work of some of the bodies. I gently remind him that I am not negotiating with the Chancellor about anything, or at least anything to do with my ministerial job—well, not really. Certainly, members of the new Executive and Assembly are negotiating with the Chancellor, and I am sure that they will hear what my hon. Friend says about the importance of economic development.
The hon. Member for East Antrim, in addition to expressing his general scepticism about some of the bodies that we are discussing, raised a number of issues that also reflected a degree of suspicion—he admitted to having that degree of suspicion—about the purpose of some of the bodies. I remind him that the body is there solely to hand out money. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury put it, it will be giving us back some of our money; that is one way of viewing it. Certainly, the body is there to hand out money, which will be spent in jurisdictions north and south, to achieve the objectives that are set out by the programmers—in this respect, the territorial co-operation objective, to put it in that EU-speak that we all know and love. It is there to administer a programme of handing out money to meet some of those objectives. So, as these bodies go, I hope that it is one that the hon. Member for East Antrim will be less suspicious of than some of the others that he referred to.
The hon. Gentleman asked me a number of questions, and I will try to deal with them. He asked whether the order was an attempt to build up the body’s functions. No, it is not. The order is simply a clarification, to ensure that the body has the powers to hand out the next tranche of money in dealing with such projects. The order will do no more than that. It is a simple clarification of the body’s existing functions, to ensure that there is no legal problem with the body exercising those functions.
The hon. Gentleman made reference to the pay of north-south bodies. Of course, the north-south bodies, whether we like them or not, are now dealt with by the North/South Ministerial Council, so the Assembly and the Irish Government are handling their administration and the way that they operate, and establishing their objectives. Many of the questions that he raised are, in fact, matters for Ministers engaged in that council to consider, so I will refrain from trying to give my view about what the north-south bodies should or should not do, because it is none of my concern anymore—although, of course, it has been in the past.
All I can do to try to reassure the hon. Gentleman is to say that the order is simply about ensuring that the Special EU Programmes Body is able to spend the money that the Commission gives it to spend, in respect of improving territorial co-operation between the north and south for its social objectives. With that, I hope that I have answered the questions that hon. Members have raised and that they will see fit to support the order.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.
Committee rose at nine minutes to Three o’clock.

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