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Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Designation of Public Authorities) Order 2002

1.29 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th October be approved [40th Report, Session 2001–02, from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in the name of my noble and learned friend the Lord Privy Seal.

The order is made under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The purpose of the draft order is to make the bodies listed in the schedules "public authorities" for the purposes of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Those public authorities will be subject to the statutory duties set out in Section 75(1) and (2) of the Act, requiring them to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between specific groups.

Although devolved government has temporarily been suspended, we remain committed to ensuring the full implementation of the agreement. The order is a further step in that important process.

In order to demonstrate its commitment, each public authority is required to produce an equality scheme that sets out how it will fulfil the duties. The schemes will cover the full range of the organisation's functions in Northern Ireland. As required by the guidelines approved by the Secretary of State each will include arrangements for policy appraisal; public consultation; public access to information and services; monitoring; and timetables. Those schemes will be submitted to the Equality Commission for approval.

The Equality Commission will advise on preparation, validate and monitor the Section 75 statutory obligation and will investigate complaints of default. Section 75(3)(b) and (c) of the Act automatically brought the vast majority of public authorities in Northern Ireland—around 120—within the scope of the statutory equality duty.

We intend that the statutory duty should, in time, embrace as many bodies as possible. It is our policy that non-designation should be the exception, not the rule. This order is not the end of the process and further designation orders will be brought forward as and when required. I commend the order to the House.

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Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th October be approved [40th Report, Session 2001–02, from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton).

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I have little to say on this order. It moves forward with the agreement. I support the order.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, on these Benches we regard the order as a welcome addition and look forward, as the Minister assured us, to further designations in the future when appropriate.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, I shall endeavour to be brief. I am aware of the pressure of time. I hope that your Lordships will not consider me churlish if I express the hope that Northern Ireland business is not forced to be rushed through in an inappropriately short time. I spent 18 years in another place where, for too long, Northern Ireland business was relegated to the midnight hours or rushed through inappropriately.

No one can disagree with the objectives of the order. It is one thing to expect bodies and individuals to meet the criteria for promoting equal opportunity and promoting good relations, but quite another to see that implemented on the ground. I implore the Government to look carefully at some matters that they are forcing upon the people of Northern Ireland which contradict the objectives of the order. There is an inequality of opportunity and I hope to deal with that to a greater extent when we discuss the new police legislation due to come before the House in the future.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith of Clifton, for their support. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, that the Government have absolutely no intention of rushing through these orders. I had understood that noble Lords who wished to be present preferred to take the orders now rather than after Starred Questions. On behalf of my noble and learned friend the Lord Privy Seal, I can assure the noble Lord that we guard jealously the right of noble Lords to comment at the right time on matters affecting Northern Ireland.

I am aware of the view of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, on the issue of equality in general. I believe that he supports the order and its aims. I look forward to receiving his comments in detail as we embark on the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

1.35 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th November be approved.

5 Dec 2002 : Column 1274

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in the name of my noble and learned friend the Lord Privy Seal. The order will amend the existing legislation relating to the operation of local government in Northern Ireland. It will remove ambiguity and complexity from existing provisions for funding district councils and strengthen their powers and responsibilities in the areas of economic development and community safety.

I propose to comment briefly on the order. I draw noble Lords' attention to the principal provision. The main purpose of the order is to put in place a new methodology for the distribution of the resources element of general grant payable to district councils. It would also extend the existing economic development powers and introduce new discretionary community safety provisions for councils.

Articles 3 to 7 deal with the payment of grants to district councils. Article 4 is an enabling power for the making of regulations to set out the formula for determining the amount of the resources element of the general grant payable to district councils. The existing statutory formula is complex and frequently results in wide variations year-on-year, making effective long-term financial planning difficult for councils. The new methodology would be simpler and would incorporate new factors, taking account of the relative socio-economic disadvantage between districts, in accordance with new targeting social need principles. It would also provide for regular payments to facilitate good financial planning.

Article 8 would extend the powers to promote economic development, allowing a broader range of activities, including the provision of sites and the acquisition of land for economic development. Also, the article would repeal the existing time limit on expenditure by district councils for that purpose.

Article 9 provides powers to district councils to engage, if they so wish, in community safety activity through voluntary community safety partnerships. Such partnerships are to be established under a community safety strategy devised by the Secretary of State.

Extensive consultation has taken place on all those matters and district councils in Northern Ireland generally accept the proposed changes. In particular, there has been overwhelming support for the new economic development and community safety powers.

Your Lordships may be aware that the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2002 is almost identical to the Bill that was being debated by the Northern Ireland Assembly prior to its suspension. It was considered by the Assembly's Environment Committee, which subsequently published a report on its findings. Concerns raised by the Environment Committee and suggested amendments have been addressed in the order. The Environment Committee was content that its recommendations would be taken on board and did not propose to bring forward any further changes. I commend the order to the House.

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Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th November be approved.—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I shall be considerably briefer on this order than I had intended to be. One point that I wish to make is that I believe this is a very—and I am not talking about today's timing and the rush there is now—unsatisfactory way of ruling Northern Ireland. I have mentioned this matter outside the Chamber to my Chief Whip and to the Government Chief Whip, and I know it is the view of my colleagues in another place. We cannot continue running Northern Ireland, in the absence of the Assembly, by a series of orders taken one after the other without proper and due scrutiny. I must ask the Government to examine a means whereby we can have pre-legislative scrutiny of some of these orders.

This order is a classic example of what is required. It is a significant order, altering the rules and regulations for 26 local authorities. It sets up orders and ways and means of adjusting the financing from one local authority to another and allowing them to raise funds for a great number of different things. I am sure that had this debate taken place in Stormont, it would have been contentious and would have lasted a considerable amount of time. I see the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, nodding in agreement with me.

That is just one example. There are nine orders outstanding at the moment that concern the management of Northern Ireland, six of which will be taken after the Second Reading of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill. I was asked whether I was prepared for that to happen. I confess that I said, "Yes", but I believe that probably nearly every one of those orders deserves a separate debate of about one hour each in the form of an Unstarred Question. This method of pushing loads of orders through—there will be more coming until the Northern Ireland political situation changes—is quite wrong. I must ask the Government in the strongest possible words to look into this matter and to make sure that some form of democratic process is put in place so that we can properly scrutinise and examine orders which would be debated in full were they in Stormont.

In principle, I have always believed that the right place for the management of Northern Ireland and for parties and political tribes to work, to get together, and to make matters work is at a local level. I believe that there should be a significant reorganisation of local government. The number of local authorities should be significantly reduced and the next stage, if we do not quickly get the Assembly back working properly, should be to devolve more power to fewer local authorities and to make it work in the villages and in the towns. Having said that, I support this order.

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