Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Session 2009/2010
Second Report

COMMITTEE FOR THE OFFICE OF THE
FIRST MINISTER AND DEPUTY FIRST MINISTER

Report on
its Inquiry into
Consideration of European
Issues

TOGETHER WITH MINUTES OF PROCEEDINGS, MINUTES OF EVIDENCE AND
WRITTEN SUBMISSIONS RELATING TO THE REPORT
Ordered by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister
to be printed 13 January 2010 Report: NIA 33/09/10R
(Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister)

This document is available in a range of alternative formats.
For more information please contact the
Northern Ireland Assembly, Printed Paper Office,
Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast, BT4 3XX
Tel: 028 9052 1078

Membership and Powers

Powers

The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is a Statutory Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Belfast Agreement, Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and under Assembly Standing Order 48. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and has a role in the initiation of legislation.

The Committee has power to:

Membership

The Committee has 11 members, including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson, and a quorum of five members.

The membership of the Committee since its establishment on 9 May 2007 has been as follows:

Chairperson Mr Danny Kennedy
Deputy Chairperson Mrs Naomi Long
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Alex Attwood 2
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr George Robinson [1] 3
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

[1] With effect from 15 September 2008 Mr Ian McCrea replaced Mr Jim Wells

2 With effect from 29 June 2009 Mr Alex Atwood replaced Mrs Dolores Kelly

3 With effect from 14 September 2009 Mr George Robinson replaced Mr Ian McCrea

List of Abbreviations

ABC-RIF Academic Business and Clinical Research and Innovation Facility

ANIFPO Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation Ltd

BINOCC British and Irish Network of Ombudsmen and Children’s Commissioners

BSP Building Sustainable Prosperity

CALRE Conference of Presidents of the Regional Legislative Assemblies of Europe

CAP Common Agricultural Policy

CEDAW Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

CEEP UK Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and Enterprises of
General Economic Interest

CEMR Council of European Municipalities and Regions

CFP Common Fisheries Policy

CLARE Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

COGECA General Confederation of Agricultural Cooperatives in the European Union

COPA Committee of Professional Agriculture Organisations

CoRs Committee of the Region Representatives

COSAC Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of
Parliaments of the European Union

COSLA Convention of Scottish Local Authorities

CPMR Conference of Peripheral and Maritime Regions

DARD Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

DEFRA Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

DEL Department for Employment and Learning

DETI Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment

DFP Department of Finance and Personnel

DOE Department of the Environment

DWP Department for Work and Pensions

EAGFF European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund

EAPN European Anti-Poverty Network

ECOSOC European Commission but also to the Economic and Social Council

EESC European Economic Social Committee

EFF European Fisheries Fund

EMILE European Members Information Liaison and Exchange

ENOC European Network of Ombudspersons for Children

EPCU European Policy and Co-ordination Unit

ERDF European Regional Development fund

ESF European Social Fund

FP7 Seventh Framework Programme

FSB Federation of Small Businesses

ICBAN Irish Central Border Area Network

ICTU Irish Congress of Trade Unions

LGA Local Government Association

MEPs Members of the European Parliament

NAP National Action Plan

NFU National Farmers’ Union

NGOs Non-Governmental Organisations

NIAPA Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association

NIAPN Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network

NIB National Implementation Body

NICCY Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People

NICVA Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action

NIEL Northern Ireland Environment Link

NILGA Northern Ireland Local Government Association

NIFHA Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations

NIWEP Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform

OFMDFM Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

OMC Open Method of Coordination

ONIEB Office of the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels

PSA Public Service Agreement

RDA Regional Development Agencies

RPA Review of Public Administration

RSPB Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

SEUPB Special EU Programmes Body

SOC Social Affairs and Citizenship Unit

TUC Trades Union Congress

UFU Ulster Farmers’ Union

UKRep United Kingdom Permanent Representation to Europe

WWF World Wildlife Fund

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations used in the Report

Report

Executive Summary

List of Recommendations

Introduction

Actions and Recommendations

Appendix 1

Minutes of Proceedings

Appendix 2

Minutes of Evidence

Appendix 3

Written Submissions

Appendix 4

List of Witnesses

Appendix 5

Report of Visits and Fact Finding Meetings

Appendix 6

Correspondence – Barroso Action Plan 2008/09

Appendix 7

Correspondence – Further Information

Executive Summary

Purpose of the Report

Northern Ireland, as a newly devolved European Region, is interested in developments at a European level. Many laws and policies of the European Union have a direct effect on the people of Northern Ireland. However, at present, the Northern Ireland Assembly does not have a European engagement strategy. In this Report, the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has sought to establish how the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive can improve interaction with the European institutions and raise the profile of Northern Ireland. The Committee has used the findings as the basis for making recommendations.

Main Findings

Those who gave evidence to the inquiry strongly believed that the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive need to further enhance relationships with the various European institutions. This would enable Northern Ireland to play a more active role in the shaping of European policy and to benefit from the opportunities that Europe provides.

The Committee took great encouragement from the level of interest shown in the inquiry by a range of stakeholders and interest groups. The Committee believes that the recommendations contained in the Report will do much to improve the future cohesiveness, direction and influence of Northern Ireland in Europe.

The Committee has identified a number of actions for statutory committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly and a number of key recommendations for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

The keys themes identified by the Committee include:

Actions for Statutory Committees

There was considerable support for the Assembly to enhance its focus on European issues and relationships with the various European institutions. The consensus was that without an enhanced focus, Northern Ireland would continue to miss opportunities to fully promote the region in Europe and to influence European policy.

This will include a more targeted scrutiny of European issues by all statutory committees. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will seek to highlight the importance of prioritising European issues and actively participating in the development of European legislation and policies which are relevant to Northern Ireland. The Committee will consider the European Commission’s Annual Legislative and Work Programme and the priorities of the holder of the Presidency of the European Union.

Action 1

The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will continue to be responsible for European issues; this will be reviewed at a later stage to determine if a European Committee needs to be established.

Action 2

The Assembly’s statutory committees will be responsible for the scrutiny of all European issues of relevance to the committee. In the autumn of each year statutory committees will be requested to provide a report of activity on European issues to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will formulate all contributions into one report to the Assembly which will be submitted to the Business Committee for Plenary debate.

Action 8

The Committee will highlight to all statutory committees the importance of their role when dealing with European issues and departments should take into consideration European policies and directives when completing business plans and strategies. Research and Library Services will screen the annual European Legislative and Work Programme and produce a prioritised menu of scrutiny topics relevant to each statutory committee. For those scrutiny topics which are of particular interest to statutory committees, the Research and Library Service should monitor the development of policy at European level and provide regular information updates which would, amongst other things, identify all relevant draft legislative acts. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will receive all information from Research and Library Services. The Brussels Officer will also have input here.

Action 10

The Committee will, with the change of Presidency every six months, consider how it wishes to engage with the holder of the Presidency of the European Union Council to discuss the priorities of the Presidency.

Recommendations for the Assembly Commission

At present the Northern Ireland Assembly does not have a strategy on European engagement. A criticism that was repeated many times in evidence sessions was in respect of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Committees not becoming involved in directives at an early enough stage to be able to change/influence a directive.

The Committee agreed that in order to aid the Assembly in its enhanced involvement in Europe that the Assembly Commission should appoint a Brussels officer. The officer would carry out a number of roles which would help the Northern Ireland Assembly to get involved in European legislation and policy at an early stage.

The Committee agreed that there is a need to promote greater understanding of the mechanics of European programmes and policies at a local level and build relations with other regional assemblies and national parliaments in Europe that may have issues similar to those in Northern Ireland.

Recommendation 3

The Assembly Commission should develop a European engagement strategy, which supplements and is complementary to the Executive’s Strategy, to enhance its engagement with European issues. The Commission should explore opportunities which may be appropriate, subject to business and budgetary constraints, for staff of the Northern Ireland Assembly to go on secondments to the various European institutions to develop the necessary skills to assist them when dealing with European issues in the Assembly

Recommendation 4

The Committee is strongly of the view that the Assembly Commission should appoint a parliamentary officer to be based in Brussels, subject to an appropriate business case including a cost benefit analysis and the necessary funding being available. If appointed the Brussels Officer should engage with institutions in Europe and the United Kingdom Government at a much earlier stage and inform the Committee of all communications taking place between the European Commission, the European Parliament and the United Kingdom Government. This would enable the Committee to provide input at an early stage to the strategic direction and policies of the European Union.

The Officer should carry out a thorough audit of existing European activity throughout Northern Ireland across all sectors so that a co-ordinated approach can be developed for the benefit of the region.

Recommendations for the First Minister and deputy First Minister

There is a need for Executive Ministers to work closely with their UK Ministerial counterparts to ensure that Northern Ireland’s views are taken on board. The Executive’s views can be raised at the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe and through the European Council of Ministers.

Bairbre de Brún MEP and Jim Nicholson MEP raised the importance of being briefed regularly by the First Minister and deputy First Minster and other Executive Ministers so that they can unilaterally represent Northern Ireland’s position.

A number of witnesses referred to the under-funding and overstretching of the resources of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels and acknowledged that, at its current level of resources, it cannot possibly be expected to keep abreast of all emerging policies.

Recommendation 9

The Committee recommends that the Northern Ireland Executive should continue to be proactive in seeking opportunities for its Ministers to be actively engaged with European business affecting their interests including attendance at the European Council of Ministers.

Recommendation 10

The First Minister and deputy First Minister should provide regular updates to the Committee on European matters, provide written reports to the Committee as required and a paper on the Executive’s European priorities following publication of the European Commission’s Annual Legislative and Work Programme. This will include highlighting to the Committee all Explanatory Memoranda which have particular relevance to Northern Ireland including any issues relating to subsidiarity and proportionality.

Recommendation 16

The First Minister and deputy First Minister should carry out a review of the work of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels to ensure that it is being carried out in the most economic, efficient and effective way. Funding of the Office should also be reviewed to ascertain whether it is sufficiently resourced to enable it to perform productively and keep abreast of all policies relevant to Northern Ireland.

Consideration should also be given to the inclusion of local government representatives, sector experts and other relevant organisations locating in the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. They should look at Scotland House, Team Wales and the West Midlands models that have already been established in Brussels.

Departments which are not currently represented in the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels should give consideration to investing in European representation.

List of Recommendations

Actions for Statutory Committees

Action 1

The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will continue to be responsible for European issues; this will be reviewed at a later stage to determine if a European Committee needs to be established.

Action 2

The Assembly’s statutory committees will be responsible for the scrutiny of all European issues of relevance to the committee. In the autumn of each year statutory committees will be requested to provide a report of activity on European issues to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will formulate all contributions into one report to the Assembly which will be submitted to the Business Committee for Plenary debate.

Action 3

The Committee will adopt a strategic approach that uses the resources that are already available, which include the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, the European Commission Office in Belfast, Members of the European Parliament, the Committee of the Regions, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. The Committee will establish an advisory panel to assist in its consideration on European matters.

Action 4

The Committee will seek to establish regular briefing sessions with all the Northern Ireland representatives in the European institutions and should establish the benefits of allowing any Members of the European Parliament to attend and participate on European issues at Committee meetings in the Assembly. Specifically, the Committee will invite the Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament to brief the Committee at least every six months on what is currently happening in Europe and what will be happening in the next six months. One of the meetings with the Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament should coincide with the publication of the European Commission Legislative and Work Programme.

The outcome of the briefings should be shared with the relevant statutory committees.

Action 5

The Committee will invite the members of the European Economic and Social Committee to brief the Committee from time to time (orally and in writing) about impending Directives, Communications, opinions and Green and White Papers emanating from the main European institutions in line with the Committee’s priorities. The Committee will also request the European Economic and Social Committee members to brief the Committee on their scrutiny of measures in the areas of economic, monetary and fiscal policies; the single market; cohesion and social policies; and external relations.

Action 6

The Committee will seek regular briefings from the Head of the European Commission Office in Belfast and will meet with appropriate European Commission officials when visiting Brussels or hold meetings by video link.

Action 7

The Committee will continue to liaise with the local representatives of Committee of the Regions and consider the benefits of obtaining the sub-committees’ work programmes to ascertain whether they are of benefit to the Committee. The Committee will become a Network Partner of the Committee of the Regions Subsidiarity Monitoring Network.

Action 8

The Committee will highlight to all statutory committees the importance of their role when dealing with European issues and departments should take into consideration European policies and directives when completing business plans and strategies. Research and Library Services will screen the annual European Legislative and Work Programme and produce a prioritised menu of scrutiny topics relevant to each statutory committee. For those scrutiny topics which are of particular interest to statutory committees, the Research and Library Service should monitor the development of policy at European level and provide regular information updates which would, amongst other things, identify all relevant draft legislative acts. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will receive all information from Research and Library Services. The Brussels Officer will also have input here.

Action 9

The Committee recommends that given each department has officials who deal with European matters, all statutory committees should receive regular briefings by officials on European matters.

Action 10

The Committee will, with the change of Presidency every six months, consider how it wishes to engage with the holder of the Presidency of the European Union Council to discuss the priorities of the Presidency.

Action 11

The Committee will establish links at the appropriate level with various regional assemblies and national parliaments with legislative powers in Europe on issues of common interest and will encourage other statutory committees to do likewise.

Action 12

The Committee will encourage better working relationships between Northern Ireland Local Government Association, Non-Governmental Organisations, the Northern Ireland Executive, departments and this Committee, so that the best way forward locally and regionally in tackling issues on behalf of citizens can be found.

Officials from the Department should discuss with the Northern Ireland Local Government Association how they could assist them in developing a local government European level strategy on economic slowdown and internal market rules.

Recommendation for the Speaker

Recommendation 1

Where the Speaker decides to attend meetings and conferences on matters relating to the relationship between the Assembly and European institutions he should notify the Committee in advance, in order to allow the Committee any appropriate opportunity to ask the Speaker to convey its views on the matters to be discussed. The Speaker should then arrange for a report on the meeting or conference to be forwarded to the Committee for information.

Recommendations for the Assembly Commission

Recommendation 2

The Assembly Commission should consult with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister before making decisions with regard to the European Institutions.

Recommendation 3

The Assembly Commission should develop a European engagement strategy, which supplements and is complementary to the Executive’s Strategy, to enhance its engagement with European issues. The Commission should explore opportunities which may be appropriate, subject to business and budgetary constraints, for staff of the Northern Ireland Assembly to go on secondments to the various European institutions to develop the necessary skills to assist them when dealing with European issues in the Assembly.

Recommendation 4

The Committee is strongly of the view that the Assembly Commission should appoint a parliamentary officer to be based in Brussels, subject to an appropriate business case including a cost benefit analysis and the necessary funding being available. If appointed the Brussels Officer should engage with institutions in Europe and the United Kingdom Government at a much earlier stage and inform the Committee of all communications taking place between the European Commission, the European Parliament and the United Kingdom Government. This would enable the Committee to provide input at an early stage to the strategic direction and policies of the European Union.

The Officer should carry out a thorough audit of existing European activity throughout Northern Ireland across all sectors so that a co-ordinated approach can be developed for the benefit of the region.

Recommendation 5

The Assembly Commission should investigate what training is required on European matters for staff and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and develop a suitable training programme, including study visits and programmes managed by the European institutions.

Recommendation 6

The Assembly Commission should consider a similar project for Assembly staff either shadowing a Brussels Officer (if the Assembly Commission appoints an officer) or shadowing a member of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels.

Recommendation 7

The Assembly Commission should seek to develop a more active participation in the European institutions. Members and staff should attend key events in line with the Assembly’s and Executive’s priorities.

Recommendations to the First Minister and deputy First Minister

Recommendation 8

Ministers from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister should brief the Committee after each Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe meeting.

Recommendation 9

The Committee recommends that the Northern Ireland Executive should continue to be proactive in seeking opportunities for its Ministers to be actively engaged with European business affecting their interests including attendance at the European Council of Ministers.

Recommendation 10

The First Minister and deputy First Minister should provide regular updates to the Committee on European matters, provide written reports to the Committee as required and a paper on the Executive’s European priorities following publication of the European Commission’s Annual Legislative and Work Programme. This will include highlighting to the Committee all Explanatory Memoranda which have particular relevance to Northern Ireland including any issues relating to subsidiarity and proportionality.

Recommendation 11

Currently there are secondments from the Civil Service to the European Commission, but not from the voluntary sector. The Executive should examine how they can raise the profile of secondments/exchanges to the European Commission, the Economic and Social Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, the European Parliament and the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. Where appropriate to do so, the Executive should encourage more civil servants and people from the voluntary sector who require development in European issues to apply for short-term to medium-term secondments. The Executive should ensure that central funding for secondment is maintained.

Recommendation 12

The Committee is encouraged by the development of several European training programmes and recommends that the Executive ensures that the training is fully developed and implemented for civil servants as soon as possible.

Recommendation 13

The Committee recommends that there are closer working relationships developed between the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Executive Ministers and Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament. The Ministerial team from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister should meet with the Members of the European Parliament, if possible, as required to discuss current European legislation and how the Members of the European Parliament can help Northern Ireland in Brussels.

Recommendation 14

The Executive should act as an umbrella for all organisations (local and cross-border) dealing in European affairs. A database of these organisations and the specific European contact in each (including social partners, Non-Governmental Organisations, local councils, lobbyists, academia and public sector) should be compiled and regular contacts established. The Executive should also consider establishing a central local partnership whereby regional and local government could work together on European issues.

Recommendation 15

The Committee recommends the establishment of a European Members Information Liaison and Exchange group for Northern Ireland to meet as required.

Recommendation 16

The First Minister and deputy First Minister should carry out a review of the work of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels to ensure that it is being carried out in the most economic, efficient and effective way. Funding of the Office should also be reviewed to ascertain whether it is sufficiently resourced to enable it to perform productively and keep abreast of all policies relevant to Northern Ireland.

Consideration should also be given to the inclusion of local government representatives, sector experts and other relevant organisations locating in the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. They should look at Scotland House, Team Wales and the West Midlands models that have already been established in Brussels.

Departments which are not currently represented in the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels should give consideration to investing in European representation.

Recommendation 17

Recommendation 13 of the Committee of the Centre Report – that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister establishes a central resource which not only collates all the available European affairs information but helps explain the context, the implications and the opportunities or threats. The establishment of a web based portal should be investigated as a method of sharing this information with Non-Governmental Organisations and local government.

Introduction

Background

1. Northern Ireland, as a newly devolved European Region, is interested in developments at a European level. Many laws and policies of the European Union have a direct effect on the people of Northern Ireland. The European Union has also contributed to economic development in Northern Ireland and to the reconciliation process, through PEACE funding.

2. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has overall responsibility for the development of Northern Ireland’s strategic approach to Europe. In October 2006 the Northern Ireland European Strategy 2006-2010 – Taking our place in Europe was launched and during a visit to Northern Ireland in May 2007, the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, announced a European Commission Taskforce for Northern Ireland. This is the first time there has been such a Taskforce and the Northern Ireland Report of the Taskforce was published in April 2008.

3. In June 2008, the Committee undertook a fact finding visit to the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels and held meetings with Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), the United Kingdom Permanent Representative and the Irish Permanent Representative. The Committee also met with key officials in the European Institutions.

4. Following the visit, the Committee decided that it wished to consider how legislation and directives originating from the European Institutions are implemented in Northern Ireland, and in particular, what may be the best approach for the Assembly and the Executive to take. The Committee also wished to consider how Northern Ireland is promoted as a region of Europe and how Northern Ireland can improve its interaction with the European Institutions.

5. The Committee at its meeting of 8 October 2008, agreed to hold an inquiry into consider European issues.

Terms of reference

6. The Committee agreed the following terms of reference:

7. The Speaker informed the Committee that he believes that consideration of European issues will be crucial to the Assembly’s future effectiveness. The Assembly Commission has discussed the importance of the Assembly’s ability to scrutinise European policy and engage with the institutions of Europe. Assembly officials have been asked to consider possible future links with the European Union in line with work done by colleagues in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. This Committee’s report will help inform the Assembly Commission’s discussions on this matter.

The Committee’s Approach

8. The Committee agreed the methodology for the inquiry should include widespread consultation and gathering of evidence, analysis of other regions, benchmarking, best practice and to produce a report. To that end the Committee agreed to write directly to key stakeholders and a number of interest groups, to request written submissions on each of the matters included within the terms of reference of the inquiry. The statutory committees of the Assembly were also invited to submit written submissions.

9. The inquiry generated substantial interest, with 41 written submissions received and the Committee conducted 34 oral evidence sessions, including oral evidence from Northern Ireland’s MEPs, the Chairman of the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee and the Houses of the Oireachtas’ Joint European Committees.

Consideration of Evidence

10. The written submissions from those organisations and groups are attached at Appendix 3.

11. A list of the witnesses who provided oral evidence to the Committee is attached at Appendix 4. Transcripts of the oral evidence sessions are attached at Appendix 2.

12. Following a number of oral evidence sessions, the Committee sought and received additional information, to further inform its consideration of European issues. Copies of these additional papers are included at Appendix 7.

13. In addition to taking oral evidence locally, the Committee sought to examine best practice in other legislatures, with visits to the Parliament of Catalonia, the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the Scottish Parliament and the Houses of the Oireachtas. Reports of these visits are included at Appendix 5.

14. During its visit to Barcelona, Anna Terrón i Cusí, Minister for Europe in the Catalan Government, provided the Committee with an overview of what she described as the sophisticated arrangements in Spain governing the participation of the autonomous communities in the Council of the European Union. She also underlined the importance to the Catalan Government of ‘informal’ engagement with the institutions of the European Union. The Catalan Government, for example, promoted engagement with the European Commission through participation in all Commission consultation exercises that are considered of importance to Catalonia. By way of example, she cited the Commission proposal for a directive on the application of patients’ rights in cross-border healthcare.

15. Participation in consultation exercises offers the potential not only for government to engage with the European Commission but also for the government to promote public engagement on European issues. The Committee is aware that the Scottish Government carried out a public consultation exercise on the cross-border healthcare proposal and that early this year Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, published a statement on the responses to the exercise.

16. The Committee will encourage all statutory committees to ensure that departments use all appropriate informal channels, such as Commission consultation exercises, to engage with the institutions of the European Union.

17. The Committee held a meeting with representatives of the Saxony-Anhalt Committee on Federal, European Affairs and Media as part of the fact-finding process. The report of this meeting is included at Appendix 5.

18. The Committee held an informal video conference meeting with the National Assembly for Wales European and External Affairs Committee to share information about how regional parliaments within the United Kingdom scrutinise European issues.

19. The Committee considered the Committee of the Centre Report 2002 on the Inquiry into the Approach of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Devolved Government on European Issues. (NIA Report 2/01, Committee of the Centre).

20. The Committee agreed that a significant number of the recommendations in that report had either been superseded by its inquiry report, the Barroso Taskforce Report or are no longer applicable.

21. The Committee considered its draft report on consideration of European issues at meetings on 21 October 2009, 11 November 2009; 18 November 2009, 25 November 2009 and 13 January 2010. The Committee agreed its final report and ordered that the report be printed on 13 January 2010.

22. The Committee commissioned a number of research papers which can be found on the Assembly website at: http://archive.niassembly.gov.uk/researchandlibrary.htm

Acknowledgements

23. The Committee for the Office of the First Minster and deputy First Minster would like to express and record its appreciation and thanks to all the individuals and organisations who contributed to the inquiry.

Actions and Recommendations

Actions for Statutory Committees

24. The Committee visited the Houses of the Oireachtas, the Scottish Parliament, the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Parliament of Catalonia. The Committee also held an informal video conference with the National Assembly for Wales European and External Affairs Committee and met with members of the Saxony-Anhalt Committee on Federal, European Affairs and Media. These meeting and visits were to ascertain how other assemblies and parliaments interact with Europe.

25. The Houses of the Oireachtas Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Affairs Mr. Bernard Durkan TD stated in oral evidence: “I am accompanied today by John Perry of Fine Gael, who is chairman of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, which scrutinizes legislation, directives or instruments that emanate from Brussels and ascertains their positive or negative impact on our respective constituents. That is important, because many of those instruments and legislative proposals emanate initially from our own Government Ministers. Therefore, they appear at a higher level but eventually return to parliamentarians.[1]"

26. The Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee focuses on scrutinising the Scottish Government’s approach to those issues due to emerge from Brussels in the next two to three years, while continuing to monitor the current issues progressing through the European Commission’s legislative process in Brussels. The Committee agreed to refocus its scrutiny on ‘early intervention’ by the Scottish Government and agreed to select 3-4 issues where early intervention is planned or considered to be beneficial.

27. The House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee system concentrates on examination of European documents of which around 1,000 are deposited in Parliament each year for scrutiny, including the Commission’s Green and White Papers as well as draft legislation. The Committee’s main role is to assess the political & legal importance of each European document and to determine which are to be debated.

28. The House of Lords European Union Select Committee has a much broader remit than the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee. It considers European documents and other matters relating to the European Union. It largely operates through seven sub-committees.

29. The Saxony-Anhalt Committee on Federal, European Affairs and Media has a special role whereby all information regarding Europe is passed to the Committee through plenary or the President but all federal and European issues are considered as passed on to the Committee once put in the database. The Committee once per year examines the European Commission’s Legislative Work Programme. The State Government submits a report at the beginning of each year on what European activities the State Government of Saxony-Anhalt will be concentrating on in the year in question.

30. The National Assembly for Wales European and External Affairs Committee identifies key strategic European issues from the European Commission’s Annual Legislative and Work Programme that are relevant, significant and will have an impact upon Wales and selects a limited number of topics for further more detailed consideration.

31. Jane Morrice, European Economic Social Committee (EESC) stated in written evidence “The Assembly should set up a Standing Committee on EU Affairs dealing with all issues (legislation, policies, programmes) relating to the EU. Those specifically affecting Northern Ireland should be sent directly to the Committee which can sift and send to the appropriate Assembly Committee (Agriculture, Environment, Regional Policy, etc). Proposed legislation can be scrutinised by the Committee which can take advice on specific issues from Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), Committee of the Region Representatives (CoRs) and EESC Members as well as from NGOs, local business, trade unions and other experts in the specified field. The resulting Committee position can be returned to Brussels (UKREP) via London or the Executive Office in Brussels[2]. That Committee should deal with its counterparts in the UK and Ireland, and other regions of the European Union"[3].

32. The majority of witnesses who gave written and oral evidence believed that the Northern Ireland Assembly should establish a European Committee. The Committee considered the evidence concerning the establishment of a European Committee and agreed that the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister holds the necessary expertise and is content that it retains its function as the Committee with strategic cross-cutting responsibility for European issues. The Committee was of the view that now was not the right time to establish a new committee.

Action 1

The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will continue to be responsible for European issues; this will be reviewed at a later stage to determine if a European Committee needs to be established.

Action 2

The Assembly’s statutory committees will be responsible for the scrutiny of all European issues of relevance to the committee. In the autumn of each year statutory committees will be requested to provide a report of activity on European issues to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will formulate all contributions into one report to the Assembly which will be submitted to the Business Committee for Plenary debate.

33. The Assembly and the Committee do not have formal or informal links with Northern Ireland representatives in Europe. The National Assembly for Wales European and External Affairs Committee said that networking with Conference of Presidents of the Regional Legislative Assemblies of Europe (CALRE) is important to Wales as this assists in determining whether a European issue has support from other regions. They also stated that within Wales there is a lot of cross-party working amongst Assembly and local government delegates to the CoRs and the Council of Europe. A representative of Queens University Belfast stated in written evidence that a forum of European experts to help inform discussions on Europe should be established. Expertise already exists in Northern Ireland in the form of the three MEPs and the members of both the CoRs and the EESC. This is a missed opportunity for the Assembly and the Committee to share information, exchange views and create positive results for Northern Ireland[4].

Action 3

The Committee will adopt a strategic approach that uses the resources that are already available, which include the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, the European Commission Office in Belfast, Members of the European Parliament, the Committee of the Regions, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. The Committee will establish an advisory panel to assist in its consideration on European matters.

34. Irish MEPs and Northern Ireland MEPs may attend and participate at meetings of the Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs and Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. At the invitation of the Committee, other members of the European Parliament may also attend its meetings.

35. There are no formal links/meetings between the Committee and the Northern Ireland Assembly with Northern Ireland MEPs. The Committee is not briefed by MEPs and therefore cannot share information on European issues that are relevant within the context of Northern Ireland. Both the European and External Relations Committee of the Scottish Parliament and the European and External Affairs Committee of the National Assembly for Wales have regular contact with their MEPs and find it very useful.

Action 4

The Committee will seek to establish regular briefing sessions with all the Northern Ireland representatives in the European institutions and should establish the benefits of allowing any Members of the European Parliament to attend and participate on European issues at Committee meetings in the Assembly. Specifically, the Committee will invite the Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament to brief the Committee at least every six months on what is currently happening in Europe and what will be happening in the next six months. One of the meetings with the Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament should coincide with the publication of the European Commission Legislative and Work Programme.

The outcome of the briefings should be shared with the relevant statutory committees.

36. At present the EESC members scrutinise most policies and legislation as part of the overall remit of the EESC. The Northern Ireland members on the EESC receive briefings from the UKREP, the House of Commons and the House of Lords on matters that are relevant to them. They have found it difficult to find effective mechanisms for their work to be fed into the local Northern Ireland public discourse on Europe. The members have offered to send to the Committee succinct briefings on important matters with which they have been dealing at least six months before they hit the ground here.

Action 5

The Committee will invite the members of the European Economic and Social Committee to brief the Committee from time to time (orally and in writing) about impending Directives, Communications, opinions and Green and White Papers emanating from the main European institutions in line with the Committee’s priorities. The Committee will also request the European Economic and Social Committee members to brief the Committee on their scrutiny of measures in the areas of economic, monetary and fiscal policies; the single market; cohesion and social policies; and external relations.

37. Jim Allister, the then MEP, in evidence stated that “the Commission has quite an open door, and its officials do not stand on ceremony with civil servants representing a region, rather than representing the national Governments, and they will be received and informed, and the Commission will talk to them about the issues"[5].

38. Maurice Maxwell from the European Commission Office in Belfast stated that “he would welcome a deeper involvement with you as the new Assembly and government gets fully into operation"[6].

Action 6

The Committee will seek regular briefings from the Head of the European Commission Office in Belfast and will meet with appropriate European Commission officials when visiting Brussels or hold meetings by video link.

39. The Saxony-Anhalt Committee on Federal, European Affairs and Media recommended that the Committee should review the work programme of the sub-committees of the Committee of the Regions and statements on issues produced by the Committee of the Regions Subject Committees[7].

40. The National Assembly of Wales is a Network Partner of the Committee of the Regions Subsidiarity Monitoring Network.

Action 7

The Committee will continue to liaise with the local representatives of Committee of the Regions and consider the benefits of obtaining the sub-committees’ work programmes to ascertain whether they are of benefit to the Committee. The Committee will become a Network Partner of the Committee of the Regions Subsidiarity Monitoring Network.

41. In response to the Committee’s initial call for evidence as part of this inquiry a number of statutory committees stated that they had no remit on European issues or did not respond. However, further correspondence with statutory committees clarified that action is taken on European issues as required.

42. Bairbre de Brún MEP stated that each Department has an official who is designated to deal with its counterpart in the European Commission on the task force. For each statutory committee, that official would be someone who could be invited to the relevant committee to brief it on their views and to engage in discussion[8]. She also stated that Committees could engage with the section relevant to them regarding the European Economic Recovery Plan and the Commissions Legislative and Work Programme for the year ahead[9].

43. The Youth Council stated that “the importance of the European Union to Northern Ireland cannot be overemphasised and that the impact of the European Union on our lives in political, social, economic and cultural terms is ever increasing. As such, individual departmental business plans and strategies should reflect that"[10].

Action 8

The Committee will highlight to all statutory committees the importance of their role when dealing with European issues and departments should take into consideration European policies and directives when completing business plans and strategies. Research and Library Services will screen the annual European Legislative and Work Programme and produce a prioritised menu of scrutiny topics relevant to each statutory committee. For those scrutiny topics which are of particular interest to statutory committees, the Research and Library Service should monitor the development of policy at European level and provide regular information updates which would, amongst other things, identify all relevant draft legislative acts. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will receive all information from Research and Library Services. The Brussels Officer will also have input here.

Action 9

The Committee recommends that given each department has officials who deal with European matters, all statutory committees should receive regular briefings by officials on European matters.

44. The Chair of the National Assembly for Wales European and External Affairs Committee provides a foreword to ‘Europe Matters’ bulletin which is issued every 2-3 months and advises what issues are current in Europe. The bulletin is issued to all Members. The European Officer from the Scottish Parliament produces a fortnightly “Brussels Bulletin" which is considered at Committee meetings. The Bulletin is circulated to subject committees and published on the website. The Committee sees this as good practice and will seek to take forward if Recommendation 4 is accepted and implemented.

45. The National Assembly for Wales European and External Affairs Committee stated that it engages with Members States as they take their turn to hold the European Union Presidency – the Ambassador is invited to the Committee when the Presidency changes to discuss their priorities.

46. “Since 2000 the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee has invited the Ambassador to the UK of the European Union Member State which holds the Presidency of the European Union Council to meet with the Committee and give a public address on the Presidency priorities. This presentation has traditionally had a dual purpose. On the one hand, it provides an early opportunity for members to question the Ambassador on how the Presidency intends taking forward specific priorities of importance to Scotland and/or overlapping with the Committee’s work programme. On the other hand, the public address, to which all MSPs are invited, raises awareness of the EU presidency.[11]"

47. The Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee also stated in its written evidence: “At its meeting on 18 March 2008, the Committee agreed that it would like to increase its contact with the Presidency of the EU Council and established a pilot project whereby members of the Committee would seek an early visit with representatives of the relevant EU Presidency. The purpose of these visits would be to establish in more detail how the Presidency intends to take forward its priorities with a particular focus on those issues overlapping with the Committee’s own work programme and other policy proposals of importance to Scotland. The aim is to meet with Ministers directly involved in those areas of interest to the Committee and thereby obtain a greater level of detail than the information that the Ambassador is generally able to supply. Following the visit, Members report back to the Committee with their findings and forward any relevant “intelligence" to the respective subject committee(s).[12]" The first of these visits took place in Prague in February 2009. A second visit to Stockholm took place on 29 May 2009.

48. The House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee and the House of Lords European Select Committee both take oral evidence from the Ambassador of each European Union Presidency.

Action 10

The Committee will, with the change of Presidency every six months, consider how it wishes to engage with the holder of the Presidency of the European Union Council to discuss the priorities of the Presidency.

49. It is really important to build relations/improve links with other regional assemblies in Europe that may have issues similar to those in Northern Ireland. The Barroso Task Force Report specifically compares Northern Ireland to six other regions in the European Union, which are of roughly the same population size.

50. Dr McGowan from Queens University Belfast suggested a region that is part of the former East Germany called Mecklenburg-East Pomerania has always appeared to be very similar to Northern Ireland. It has roughly the same size of population, and is heavily agricultural. It is also having major problems with unemployment because no main producers are based there[13]. Jane Morrice, EESC stated that the Committee should establish direct links with regional Assemblies in other parts of the Europe such as Catalonia or the Basque region in Spain, Cyprus or Malta, Estonia or Lithuania, Finland or Sweden and in the candidate countries[14].

51. The President of the Parliament of Catalonia stated that he would like to establish links with Northern Ireland and that he would like to see the re-establishment of the Network of Regional Parliaments European Committee, of which Catalonia was a former member[15].

52. Craigavon Borough Council said that Northern Ireland Executive should learn from other places such as Republic of Ireland and Wales and the Valleys on how they have successfully secured impressive levels of European funding on infrastructure type projects which have helped to fund their National Development Plans for their regions/countries[16].

Action 11

The Committee will establish links at the appropriate level with various regional assemblies and national parliaments with legislative powers in Europe on issues of common interest and will encourage other statutory committees to do likewise.

53. The Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) have said that the delivery of European Union policy would be greatly enhanced if there was a closer working relationship between regional and local government that would be directed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. NILGA wants to work as effectively as it possibly can in order to ensure that the local level is fully understood and incorporated in the development of European Union policies at the earliest possible opportunity[17]. This finding was supported by the Northern Ireland Environment Link who said “the Assembly should encourage all relevant Departments to develop a partnership approach with local Non-Governmental Organisations to ensure the successful design and implementation of European policy at a local level"[18].

54. NILGA stated that Local Government would welcome the Northern Ireland Executive’s support in the development and delivery of a local government European level strategy on economic slowdown and internal market rules (including lowering the VAT on council services, increasing state aid and reviewing the mechanisms and rules of public procurement)[19].

Action 12

The Committee will encourage better working relationships between Northern Ireland Local Government Association, Non-Governmental Organisations, the Northern Ireland Executive, departments and this Committee, so that the best way forward locally and regionally in tackling issues on behalf of citizens can be found.

Officials from the Department should discuss with the Northern Ireland Local Government Association how they could assist them in developing a local government European level strategy on economic slowdown and internal market rules.

Recommendation for the Speaker

55. The Speaker represents the Northern Ireland Assembly at meetings of Speakers/Presiding Officers/Presidents of other legislatures. The Speaker has sought to do this through one-to-one meetings and attendance at conferences organised by bodies such as CALRE.

Recommendation 1

Where the Speaker decides to attend meetings and conferences on matters relating to the relationship between the Assembly and European institutions he should notify the Committee in advance, in order to allow the Committee any appropriate opportunity to ask the Speaker to convey its views on the matters to be discussed. The Speaker should then arrange for a report on the meeting or conference to be forwarded to the Committee for information.

Recommendations for the Assembly Commission

Recommendation 2

The Assembly Commission should consult with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister before making decisions with regard to the European Institutions.

56. Bairbre de Brún MEP stated “the Assembly must decide what level of priority it wishes to give to European issues, in advance of having to implement directives. First and foremost, the political will must be assessed, followed by the level of resources needed to carry that through. It must be decided what level of priority the Assembly wants to give to an ongoing and timely engagement with the range of European institutions and bodies"[20].

57. The Assembly does not have a strategy on European engagement.

Recommendation 3

The Assembly Commission should develop a European engagement strategy, which supplements and is complementary to the Executive’s Strategy, to enhance its engagement with European issues. The Commission should explore opportunities which may be appropriate, subject to business and budgetary constraints, for staff of the Northern Ireland Assembly to go on secondments to the various European institutions to develop the necessary skills to assist them when dealing with European issues in the Assembly.

58. A criticism that kept coming up time and again during the inquiry was in respect of the Assembly and Committees not becoming involved in directives at an early enough stage to be able to make a change/ to influence a directive. All too often the directive had already been agreed and had to be implemented or the member state would be into infraction proceedings.

59. In May 2006, the European Commission took a decision on co-operation between the European Commission and national Parliaments. The European Commission decided to transmit directly to national Parliaments all new proposals and consultation papers, within the remit of the current treaties. The European Commission will invite reaction to those, in order to improve the process of policy formulation.

60. Therefore, before legislation is adopted and becomes a fait accompli, there is an ongoing process of consultation whereby the European Commission — with the agreement of the European Council — invites national Parliaments to comment and contribute to the debates on legislation and other matters that may emanate from the European Commission. The European Commission states that its aims to take those comments into account.

61. The European Commission deals directly with the national Parliaments but, given the devolved nature of the Administration in Northern Ireland, there is a need for co-operation between the devolved Administration and the National Parliament in Westminster to ensure that the Assembly and the Executive are kept sufficiently informed of the consultations that are taking place. This will ensure the Northern Ireland Assembly can take the proper place in those discussions on a timely basis and not be faced with a fait accompli.

62. The various parliaments within the UK and Ireland all stated the benefits and advantages of having a person from the parliament working and based in Brussels. The person in Brussels hears what is going on in Europe by keeping in regular contact with European organisations and briefings, intelligence and advice on current European issues and priorities. The person in Brussels can assist in identifying issues and timescales for the parliament.

63. However, Bairbre de Brún MEP stated that the “Assembly engagement must reach a much higher level before the Assembly would require, or benefit from an office. It is too early for a Committee to benefit from having an office in Brussels if it is not already engaging with organisations that deal with European issues on a day-to-day basis[21]".

Recommendation 4

The Committee is strongly of the view that the Assembly Commission should appoint a parliamentary officer to be based in Brussels, subject to an appropriate business case including a cost benefit analysis and the necessary funding being available. If appointed the Brussels Officer should engage with institutions in Europe and the United Kingdom Government at a much earlier stage and inform the Committee of all communications taking place between the European Commission, the European Parliament and the United Kingdom Government. This would enable the Committee to provide input at an early stage to the strategic direction and policies of the European Union.

The Officer should carry out a thorough audit of existing European activity throughout Northern Ireland across all sectors so that a co-ordinated approach can be developed for the benefit of the region.

64. The Joint Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas believe that it is important for parliamentary officials’ and members’ knowledge and experience of the European Union to be continually enhanced and updated. In terms of the members, this is advanced through study visits to Brussels by the Joint Committees. This includes meetings with Commissioners and MEPs, and attendance at Joint Parliamentary meetings organised by the European Parliament and the Presidency of the European Union[22].

65. Training programmes for parliamentary officials on European matters are also offered. Courses offered range from day courses on accessing European documents and the European Union’s legislative process to diploma courses in European law. The Houses of the Oireachtas officials have also participated in the ‘Thematic Study Visits’ on European issues, which is a programme managed by the European Parliament.

66. Bairbre de Brún MEP stated that a tailored visit for Committee staff would be very useful, and possibly a separate visit for MLAs[23]. Jane Morrice, EESC stated that the Committee should also provide its members with an opportunity to get acquainted with the institutions of the European Union in Brussels[24].

Recommendation 5

The Assembly Commission should investigate what training is required on European matters for staff and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and develop a suitable training programme, including study visits and programmes managed by the European institutions.

67. In the Scottish Parliament the Clerking Team has initiated a pilot project whereby staff members in the Committee Office are invited to shadow the European Officer for a week in Brussels. The first and second job shadowing projects have taken place and a third is planned for the future. This pilot project has been a success.

Recommendation 6

The Assembly Commission should consider a similar project for Assembly staff either shadowing a Brussels Officer (if the Assembly Commission appoints an officer) or shadowing a member of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels.

68. Bairbre de Brún MEP mentioned the 2009 Regional Development Open Days event in October in Brussels. Open Days is an annual event where different regional offices and other local and regional groupings and authorities come together to put on events, network and engage on chosen themes. Open Days is a hugely beneficial networking opportunity for people from Northern Ireland to see what is happening in other regions of Europe.

Recommendation 7

The Assembly Commission should seek to develop a more active participation in the European institutions. Members and staff should attend key events in line with the Assembly’s and Executive’s priorities.

Recommendations to the First Minister and deputy First Minister

69. Ministers from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and Officials attend the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, which meets four times a year under the chairmanship of the Foreign Secretary to consider key European policy. Other Northern Ireland departments are involved in this process by providing briefing on relevant agenda items.

Recommendation 8

Ministers from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister should brief the Committee after each Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe meeting.

70. There is a need for Executive Ministers to work closely with their UK Ministerial counterparts to ensure that Northern Ireland’s views are taken on board. The Executive’s views can be raised at the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe and through the European Council of Ministers.

Recommendation 9

The Committee recommends that the Northern Ireland Executive should continue to be proactive in seeking opportunities for its Ministers to be actively engaged with Eropean business affecting their interests including attendance at the European Council of Ministers.

Recommendation 10

The First Minister and deputy First Minister should provide regular updates to the Committee on European matters, provide written reports to the Committee as required and a paper on the Executive’s European priorities following publication of the European Commission’s Annual Legislative and Work Programme. This will include highlighting to the Committee all Explanatory Memoranda which have particular relevance to Northern Ireland including any issues relating to subsidiarity and proportionality.

71. There is a need to promote greater understanding of the mechanics of European programmes and policies at a local level. This should be done by stepping up the number of secondments between Northern Ireland and Brussels and worldwide.

72. Ronnie Hall from the European Commission’s Directorate General Regio stated that “In each Directorate General of the Commission, there are a reasonably large number of posts for secondees. Although there is some notion of national balance across the 27 member states, there are no hard and fast rules. There is no quota for Northern Ireland. In that kind of process, the race winner can be the region that reacts quickest or is the most enthusiastic or the one that provides the person with the right qualifications for the area in the Directorate General"[25].

73. The Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform in their evidence stated “the wealth of talent and experience on European matters among public, private and voluntary players in Northern Ireland should be harnessed more effectively, and opportunities sought to place people from these sectors on secondment or as advisors and experts at European level"[26].

74. A number of witnesses, such as, Jim Nicolson MEP, Bairbre de Brún MEP, Edwin Poots CoR, Jane Morrice and Mike Smyth EESC and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions all said that key people such as civil servants and students must be encouraged to go to Brussels to learn the system and to see how it works and operates, for example through UKREP to the European Union. This should be done by increasing the variety of exchanges (secondments, missions, visits) between Northern Ireland and Brussels and further afield.

75. Young civil servants are reluctant to move from Northern Ireland to Brussels and uproot their families for three or four years, only to find on their return that their colleagues in the department have been promoted to a higher grade in their absence. There must be incentives to encourage young civil servants to go to Brussels.

76. The Committee was encouraged to find that in the Department of Education there is ongoing work on a language strategy and that the Department for Employment and Learning has an information exchange programme with other similar institutions in Europe. There is a central pot of approximately £400,000 within the Department for Finance and Personnel to cover the costs of secondments to the European institutions. However, this funding may not be available beyond March 2010.

Recommendation 11

Currently there are secondments from the Civil Service to the European Commission, but not from the voluntary sector. The Executive should examine how they can raise the profile of secondments/exchanges to the European Commission, the Economic and Social Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, the European Parliament and the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. Where appropriate to do so, the Executive should encourage more civil servants and people from the voluntary sector who require development in European issues to apply for short-term to medium-term secondments. The Executive should ensure that central funding for secondment is maintained.

77. A Departmental official stated that several programmes are under way, or are being prepared, one of which is the Centre for Applied Learning’s newly activated European training programme. The programme has two stages to it, the first of which involves learning about European institutions, legal issues etc. The second stage comprises a study visit to the various institutions to talk to employees there[27].

Recommendation 12

The Committee is encouraged by the development of several European training programmes and recommends that the Executive ensures that the training is fully developed and implemented for civil servants as soon as possible.

78. Jim Nicolson MEP raised the matter of the need for twice a year briefing by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Bairbre de Brún MEP stated that Ministers in the Executive might want to have closer working relationships with MEPs.

79. The importance of MEPs being briefed so that they can represent a Northern Ireland perspective, in a consistent co-ordinated voice, was raised in other evidence presented. One of the MEPs stated that he very seldom received a briefing paper from the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels on issues of specific interest to Northern Ireland that are being dealt with in Brussels.

Recommendation 13

The Committee recommends that there are closer working relationships developed between the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Executive Ministers and Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament. The Ministerial team from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister should meet with the Members of the European Parliament, if possible, as required to discuss current European legislation and how the Members of the European Parliament can help Northern Ireland in Brussels.

80. NILGA stated that “Council’s ability to deliver European policy would be greatly enhanced by a closer working relationship between the regional and local government directed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is therefore vital that regional and local government work together as effectively as possible to ensure that the local level is fully understood and incorporated in the development of European policies at the earliest possible opportunity – for the benefit of all our citizens"[28].

Recommendation 14

The Executive should act as an umbrella for all organisations (local and cross-border) dealing in European affairs. A database of these organisations and the specific European contact in each (including social partners, Non-Governmental Organisations, local councils, lobbyists, academia and public sector) should be compiled and regular contacts established. The Executive should also consider establishing a central local partnership whereby regional and local government could work together on European issues.

81. “Members of the Scottish Parliament European and External Relations Committee are members of EMILE Forum (European Elected Members Information Liaison and Exchange) which meets on a six monthly basis. Currently, the Forum is chaired by the Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution and secretariat support is provided by the Scottish Government. The Forum brings together Scottish MEPs, COSLA and Scottish representatives from ECOSOC and the CoR. Over the last year, the Forum has sought to identify specific policy issues of importance to Scotland on which to focus its discussions: e.g Cross Border Healthcare Directive, Emissions Trading Directive. The Forum meetings have proved a useful opportunity to obtain an informal update on Scottish Government activities in Brussels and to obtain the perspective of Scottish MEPs on issues to importance to Scotland."[29]

Recommendation 15

The Committee recommends the establishment of a European Members Information Liaison and Exchange group for Northern Ireland to meet as required.

82. Jim Nicholson MEP stated that “the Executive office is excellent on the agriculture side, and it is also good in other areas. However, it is under-resourced, and extra money should be made available to it. If there are more people available, it will be more productive"[30]. A number of witnesses referred to the under-funding and overstretching of the resources of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels (ONIEB) and acknowledged that, at its current level of resources, it cannot possibly be expected to keep abreast of all emerging policies.

83. An official from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister stated that “the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels is operated by a small team, which works very hard to represent Northern Ireland. Other Departments should consider whether they should invest in putting people in Brussels. There is already representation from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and from Invest Northern Ireland. That has proved to be very beneficial, and we have spare capacity for representation from other Departments if they thought about posting someone to Brussels"[31].

84. The Committee was impressed by the partnership workings in Scotland House, Team Wales and the West Midlands models in Brussels.

Recommendation 16

The First Minister and deputy First Minister should carry out a review of the work of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels to ensure that it is being carried out in the most economic, efficient and effective way. Funding of the Office should also be reviewed to ascertain whether it is sufficiently resourced to enable it to perform productively and keep abreast of all policies relevant to Northern Ireland.

Consideration should also be given to the inclusion of local government representatives, sector experts and other relevant organisations locating in the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. They should look at Scotland House, Team Wales and the West Midlands models that have already been established in Brussels.

Departments which are not currently represented in the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels should give consideration to investing in European representation.

85. The Committee agreed that the following recommendation from the Committee of the Centre Report 2002 on the Inquiry into the Approach of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Devolved Government on European Issues (NIA Report 2/01 - Committee of the Centre) should be included in its report:

Recommendation 17

Recommendation 13 of the Committee of the Centre Report – that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister establishes a central resource which not only collates all the available European affairs information but helps explain the context, the implications and the opportunities or threats. The establishment of a web based portal should be investigated as a method of sharing this information with Non-Governmental Organisations and local government.

[1] Appendix 2, para 944

[2] Appendix 3, page 375

[3] Appendix 2, para 277

[4] Appendix 3, page 431

[5] Appendix 2, para 152

[6] Appendix 7, page 551

[7] Appendix 5, page 494

[8] Appendix 2, para 454

[9] Appendix 2, para 455

[10] Appendix 2, para 1538

[11] Appendix 3, page 447

[12] Appendix 3, page 448

[13] Appendix 3, page 432

[14] Appendix 3, page 375

[15] Appendix 5, page 459

[16] Appendix 3, page 346

[17] Appendix 3, page 420

[18] Appendix 2, para 1253

[19] Appendix 2, para 1166

[20] Appendix 2, para 465

[21] Appendix 2, paras 526-527

[22] Appendix 7, page 581

[23] Appendix 2, para 460

[24] Appendix 3, page 375

[25] Appendix 2, para 1781

[26] Appendix 3, page 426

[27] Appendix 2, para 608

[28] Appendix 3, page 421

[29] Appendix 3, page 445

[30] Appendix 2, para 248

[31] Appendix 2, para 593

Appendix 1

Minutes of Proceedings

Wednesday 8 October 2008
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Lynda Mulholland (Clerical Supervisor)
Ms Helena Maginness (Clerical Officer)
Mr Denis Arnold (Bill Clerk)

2.32 p.m. The meeting opened in public session

5. EU Terms of Reference and Action Plan

The Committee considered the draft terms of reference and action plan for its consideration of European issues.

2.41 p.m. Mrs Long joined the meeting

Agreed: Members agreed the terms of reference and action plan for its consideration of European issues. Members agreed that the Committee would consider European issues approximately one meeting in four. Members agreed to request from the Assembly’s Research and Library Services, a list of key stakeholders that the Committee may wish to seek written evidence from. Members agreed a press release.

3.37 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 22 October 2008
Senate Chamber, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Lynda Mulholland (Clerical Supervisor)
Ms Helena Maginness (Clerical Officer)

2.01 p.m. The meeting opened in public session

3.02 p.m. Mr Spratt left the meeting

3.04 p.m. Mrs Kelly left the meeting

3.19 p.m. Mr McElduff left the meeting

3.33 p.m. Mr McCrea left the meeting

7. Consideration of EU Issues

A Researcher from the Assembly’s Research and Library Services briefed the Committee on the list of Key Stakeholders that the Committee may wish to seek written evidence from.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to seek written evidence from those stakeholders on the list. Members also agreed a number of additional stakeholders that it would wish to seek written evidence from.

3.56 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 12 November 2008
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Lynda Mulholland (Clerical Supervisor)
Ms Helena Maginness (Clerical Officer)
Mr Denis Arnold (Bill Clerk)

2.06 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

4. Consideration of European Issues

2.10 p.m. Mr Elliott joined the meeting.

2.10 p.m. Officials from OFMDFM joined the meeting.

Officials from OFMDFM, Mrs Evelyn Cummins and Mr Paul Geddis briefed the Committee on OFMDFM’s work in relation to Europe and the Committee’s terms of reference for its consideration of European issues. A question and answer session followed. Officials advised they would provide the Committee with further information relating to the newspaper article on the claw back of European funds. The Chairperson thanked Mrs Cummins and her team for their help during the Committee’s visit to Brussels.

2.45 p.m. Officials from OFMDFM left the meeting.

2.46 p.m. Maurice Maxwell joined the meeting.

2.46 p.m. Mr Kennedy left the meeting, Mrs Long took the Chair.

Mr Maurice Maxwell, Head of the European Commission’s Office in Belfast, briefed the Committee on the work of the European Commission’s Office and the Committee’s terms of reference for its consideration of European issues. A question and answer session followed.

3.10 p.m. Maurice Maxwell left the meeting.

Members discussed the forward work plan for its consideration of European issues.

Agreed: The Committee would bring forward its meeting with Northern Ireland’s Members of the European Parliament to 10.00am on Friday 12 December 2008 in Room 144.

3.20 p.m. The Deputy Chairperson adjourned the meeting

[EXTRACT]

Friday 12 December 2008
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Lynda Mulholland (Clerical Supervisor)
Ms Helena Maginness (Clerical Officer)

10.01 a.m. The meeting opened in public session.

2. Consideration of European Issues

10.03 a.m. Mr Jim Allister, Member of the European Parliament joined the meeting.

10.04 a.m. Mr Elliott joined the meeting.

10.04 a.m. Mr McElduff joined the meeting.

10.08 a.m. Mr Shannon joined the meeting.

Mr Jim Allister MEP, briefed the Committee on European issues. A question and answer session followed.

10.41 a.m. Mr Jim Allister, Member of the European Parliament left the meeting.

10.50 a.m. Mr Jim Nicholson, Member of the European Parliament joined the meeting.

Mr Jim Nicholson MEP, briefed the Committee on European issues. A question and answer session followed.

11.22 a.m. Mr Moutray left the meeting.

11.35 a.m. Mr Jim Nicholson, Member of the European Parliament left the meeting.

3. Executive’s Response to the Report of the Barroso Taskforce

The Chairperson advised Members that the Executive’s Response to the Report of the Barroso Taskforce has not yet been received. The Chairperson advised that the Department hope to have it with the Committee in time for the first meeting in January 2009.

6. Matters Arising

Consideration of European issues

Members noted the supplementary information provided by OFMDFM and Mr Maurice Maxwell, Head of the European Commission’s Office in Belfast following their evidence session on 12 November 2008. Members also noted a briefing provided by the Committee for Finance and Personnel concerning the claw-back of European funding.

8. Forward Work Programme

Agreed: Members agreed that the Clerk should make arrangements for the Committee to visit the European Committees in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, Scotland and Wales.

Agreed: Members agreed to invite the House of the Oireachtas Joint Committees on Europe to give oral evidence to the Committee in relation to the Committee’s consideration of European issues.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 7 January 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Lynda Mulholland (Clerical Supervisor)
Ms Helena Maginness (Clerical Officer)
Mr Tim Moore (Senior Researcher)

2.04 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

4. Consideration of EU Issues

2.09 p.m. The NI members of the UK delegation to the European Economic Social Committee joined the meeting.

2.32 p.m. Mrs Kelly joined the meeting.

Jane Morrice and Mike Smyth briefed the Committee on European issues. A question and answer session followed.

3.15 p.m. The NI members of the UK delegation to the European Economic Social Committee left the meeting.

The Chairperson drew the Committee’s attention to the number of written submissions received from Local Government organisations and Other Groups.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to invite these organisations to give oral evidence.

The Committee noted that the Executive’s response to Barraso has not been received and therefore the briefing scheduled for 14 January 2009 will be deferred until 21 January 2009.

A Senior Researcher briefed the Committee on the European regions which the Committee could engage with in order to inform its ongoing consideration of European Issues. A question and answer session followed.

3.21 p.m. Mr McCrea left the meeting.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to visit the Parliaments of Catalonia and Saxony-Anhalt.

3.34 p.m. Mr McCrea rejoined the meeting.

3.44 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 14 January 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Lynda Mulholland (Clerical Supervisor)
Ms Helena Maginness (Clerical Officer)
Mr Denis Arnold (Bill Clerk)

2.45 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

2. Chairperson’s Business

Consideration of European Issues Written Submissions Folder

The Committee noted the folder of written submissions in relation to the Committee’s consideration of European issues. The Committee were content that small to medium businesses were covered by the submission from the Federation of Small Businesses.

4.38 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 21 January 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Ms Aiobhinn Treanor (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Lynda Mulholland
Clerical Supervisor)
Ms Helena Maginness (Clerical Officer)

2.06 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

2. Chairperson’s Business

Barosso Taskforce Report

The Chairperson reminded Members that the Committee has been waiting for the Department’s response to the Barosso Taskforce Report since September 2008 and has yet to receive it.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the First Minister and deputy First Minister requesting a meeting to discuss the reasons for the delay in receiving this response.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to request a Research paper when the response is received.

4. Consideration of European Issues

2.14 p.m. Ms Bairbre deBrun, Member of the European Parliament, joined the meeting.

2.23 p.m. Mr Spratt joined the meeting.

2.28 p.m. Mr Molloy joined the meeting.

Ms Bairbre deBrun MEP, briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

3.05 p.m. Ms deBrun, Member of the European Parliament, left the meeting.

3.05 p.m. Mr Sean Neeson, NI Member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, joined the meeting.

Mr Sean Neeson briefed the Committee on European on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

3.31 p.m. Mr Neeson, NI Member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, left the meeting.

The Chairperson drew Members’ attention to the written submission to the inquiry from the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA).

Agreed: The Committee agreed to invite NICVA to give oral evidence.

4.17 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 28 January 2009
Senate Chamber, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Ms Aoibhinn Treanor (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Lynda Mulholland (Clerical Supervisor)
Ms Helena Maginness (Clerical Officer)
Mr Vincent Gribben (Researcher)

2.05 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

2. Chairperson’s Business

Executive’s Response to the Northern Ireland Taskforce Report

Agreed: The Committee agreed that Members would forward their views and comments on the Executive’s response to the Report of the Northern Ireland Taskforce to the Committee Office by Thursday 5 February 2009, for consideration at the Committee meeting on Wednesday 11 February. The Committee noted there was no need for an urgent meeting with Ministers.

Agreed: The Committee agreed that the Executive’s response should be issued to all statutory committees seeking their views on the response.

Consideration of EU issues

Agreed: The Committee agreed the date for its visit to Westminster to meet with the House of Lords and House of Commons European Committees. The Committee agreed the date for its visit to the Catalan Parliament. The Committee also agreed the date for the visit of the House of Oireachtas Joint Committees to Stormont to give evidence on the Committee’s consideration of European issues.

4.14 p.m. The Deputy Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 11 February 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Ms Nuala Dunwoody (Clerk Assistant)
Ms Aoibhinn Treanor (Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Helena Maginness (Clerical Officer)

2.05 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

4. Consideration of European Issues

Visits

The Chairperson asked members to confirm their availability for the Westminster visit scheduled for 4 March 2009.

The Chairperson advised members that it was proving difficult to arrange a visit to the Welsh Assembly, so the Committee team is going to investigate options including video conferencing.

The Chairperson advised members that the provisional date of 23 April for the visit to the Catalan Parliament clashes with Catalonia’s patron saint’s day — St Jordi’s Day, a busy day in the calendar.

Agreed: Members agreed that the Committee team plan the visit for the first week of May.

Evidence Session: Mr Poots

2.15 p.m. Mr Edwin Poots joined the meeting.

Mr Edwin Poots, MLA and Member of the Committee of the Regions, briefed the Committee on the work of the Committee of the Regions. This was followed by a question and answer session.

2.24 p.m. Mr Jimmy Spratt joined the meeting.

2.42 p.m. Mr Edwin Poots left the meeting.

Evidence Session: Executive Response to Barroso report

2.43 p.m. Officials from OFMDFM joined the meeting.

Evelyn Cummins, Paul Geddis and John McMillen briefed the Committee on the Executive’s response to the Barroso report. This was followed by a question and answer session.

2.44 p.m. Mr Ian McCrea left the meeting.

2.55 p.m. Mrs Dolores Kelly left the meeting.

3.11 p.m. Mr Barry McElduff left the meeting.

3.19 p.m. Officials from OFMDFM left the meeting

3.20 p.m. Mr Stephen Moutray left the meeting.

4.00 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 18 February 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Nuala Dunwoody (Clerk Assistant)
Ms Aoibhinn Treanor (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Helena Maginness (Clerical Officer)
Mr James Quinn (Clerical Officer)
Mr Tim Moore (Senior Researcher)

2.03 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

2. Chairperson’s Business

European inquiry – Saxony-Anhalt

Members noted that the Committee would meet with representatives of the Saxony-Anhalt Parliament in the Scottish Parliament before the commencement of the Europa Day Seminar on 7 May 2009.

Agreed: The Committee agreed that this meeting would take the place of the planned fact-finding visit to the Saxony-Anhalt Parliament in Magdeburg.

European inquiry - Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee

Members noted that the Convenor of the European and External Relations Committee had agreed to give oral evidence to the Committee in regard to its inquiry into European issues.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to hear oral evidence from the Convenor of the European and External Relations Committee and her Clerk.

European inquiry – National Assembly for Wales’ European and External Relations Committee

Members noted that the European and External Relations Committee had agreed to give oral evidence to the Committee in regard to its inquiry into European issues.

Agreed: The Committee agreed that a video-conference with the Committee would take the place of the planned fact-finding visit to Wales.

4. Consideration of European issues

Fact-finding visits

The Chairperson asked Members to note the report on the Committee’s fact-finding visit to the Scottish Parliament on 4 February 2009.

Oral evidence

2.12 p.m. Laura Leonard, European Manager for Belfast City Council, joined the meeting.

2.14 p.m. Mr Shannon joined the meeting.

The representative from Belfast City Council briefed the Committee on the Council’s work on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

2.37 p.m. Laura Leonard left the meeting.

2.38 p.m. Olga Murtagh, Cllr Jonathan McGibbon and Nicola Wilson from Craigavon Borough Council joined the meeting.

The representatives from Craigavon Borough Council briefed the Committee on the Council’s work on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

Agreed: The Committee agreed that Craigavon Borough Council would forward more information to the Committee on EU funding drawn down by the council.

3.10 p.m. Mr Shannon left the meeting.

3.13 p.m. The representatives from Craigavon Borough Council left the meeting.

3.14 p.m. Mrs Kelly left the meeting.

3.14 p.m. Oonagh McGillion, Director of Development and Tony Monaghan, Acting Senior Economic Development Officer from Derry City Council joined the meeting.

3.29 p.m. Mr Elliott left the meeting.

3.39 p.m Mrs Kelly rejoined the meeting.

The representatives from Derry City Council briefed the Committee on the Council’s work on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to seek further information regarding issues of flexibility and match funding raised in the evidence session.

3.47 p.m. Ms Anderson left the meeting.

5. Committee’s initial response to the Executive’s Action Plan

The Committee considered the draft initial response to the Executive’s Action Plan.

Agreed: The Committee agreed that the draft was a balanced reflection of the Committee’s views.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to send the response to the Executive via the Department and to ask the Department what the next steps in this process would be.

3.52 p.m. Mr Moutray left the meeting.

3.53 p.m. Ms Anderson rejoined the meeting.

3.57 p.m. Ms Anderson left the meeting.

3.57 p.m. Mr Elliott rejoined the meeting.

7. Matters arising

4.34 p.m. Mr Molloy left the meeting.

Request for additional time to respond to Barroso Task Force Report

Agreed: The Committee agreed to the request from the Regional Development Committee for an extension to the deadline for response.

4.53 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 25 February 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt
Mr Francie Molloy

In Attendance: Ms Nuala Dunwoody (Clerk Assistant)
Ms Aoibhinn Treanor (Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Helena Maginness (Clerical Officer)
Mr James Quinn (Clerical Officer)

2.33 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

1. Chairperson’s Business

Committee Visit to London

The Chairperson advised the Committee of amended arrangements for travel to London to meet with the House of Commons and House of Lords EU Scrutiny Committee’s.

Agreed: Members agreed the amended travel arrangements.

6. Consideration of European Issues

4.31 p.m. Dr Lee McGowan from Queen’s University Belfast joined the meeting.

Dr McGowan briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

4.32 p.m. Ms Martina Anderson left the meeting.

4.52 p.m. Dr Lee McGowan left the meeting.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to Trevor Newsom of Queen’s University Belfast for details of practical engagement between QUB and other European institutions and details of drawdown of European funding.

7. Matters arising

Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels – response from OFMDFM

The Committee noted the response from the Department on the role of the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels.

Executive Response to the Barroso Taskforce Report – response from Committee for the Environment

The Committee noted the response from the Committee for the Environment on the Barroso report.

Executive Response to the Barroso Taskforce Report – response from Committee for Social Development

The Committee noted the response from the Committee for Social Development on the Barroso report.

Executive Response to the Barroso Taskforce Report – response from Committee for Employment and Learning

The Committee noted the response from the Committee for Employment and Learning on the Barroso report.

Executive Response to the Barroso Taskforce Report – response from Committee for Finance and Personnel

The Committee noted the response from the Committee for Finance and Personnel on the Barroso report.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to forward these responses; to comment on them and to ask the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Executive to take account of the various Committee’s comments and amend the Barroso response accordingly.

5.04 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 11 March 2009
Room 106, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt
Mr Francie Molloy

In Attendance: Ms Aoibhinn Treanor (Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Lynda Mulholland (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr James Quinn (Clerical Officer)

2.10 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

2.10 p.m. Representatives from the Houses of the Oireachtas’ Joint Committee on European Affairs and Joint Committee on European Scrutiny joined the meeting.

4. Consideration of European Issues

Confirmed meetings

The Chairperson reminded members that a video conference had been arranged and confirmed with the National Assembly for Wales’ European and External Relations Committee on Wednesday 18 March 2009 at 11.30 in the Castle. All five members of the Wales Committee will be taking part in the video conference.

The Chairperson advised that five Members (including the Chairperson) are scheduled to attend the Europe Day Seminar in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 7 and Friday 8 May 2009. A meeting with the parliamentarians from Saxony-Anhalt, who will also be in attendance at the Europe Day seminar has been confirmed for 16.00 on 7 May before the Europe Day reception commences.

Evidence session

Representatives from the Houses of the Oireachtas’ Joint Committee on European Affairs and Joint Committee on European Scrutiny briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to Ronan Gargan (Policy Advisor to both Joint Committees) requesting copies of reports on fisheries issues and exchange of other reports of mutual interest and to provide/exchange details of Secretariat staff.

5. Matters arising

Executive Response to the Barroso Taskforce Report – response from Committee for Regional Development.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to forward the response to the Department and highlight any areas of discontent.

European Commission Task Force Report – Executive Response.

The Committee noted the Department’s response advising that Executive Committee consideration of the draft Action Plan is anticipated later this month and if consensus is reached, the First Minister and deputy First Minister will present the Executive’s response to President Barroso before Easter.

3.44 p.m. Representatives from the Houses of the Oireachtas’ Joint Committee on European Affairs and Joint Committee on European Scrutiny left the meeting

3.45 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 25 March 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Jimmy Spratt
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott

In Attendance: Ms Aoibhinn Treanor (Assembly Clerk)
Ms Patricia Casey (Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Sean McCann (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr James Quinn (Clerical Officer)

2.02 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

4. Consideration of European Issues

Visit to Barcelona

The Chairperson informed members that a response from Barcelona officials highlighted Wednesday 20 May to Friday 22 May 2009 as the most suitable dates for the proposed fact finding visit to Barcelona.

Agreed: Members will advise the Committee Office ASAP of their availability.

2.06 p.m. Mr Jimmy Spratt joined the meeting

Westminster Visit

The Chairperson informed members that a report on the visit to Westminster on 4 March 2009 is included in this weeks meeting pack.

Evidence sessions

The Chairperson informed members that the House of Lords European Select Committee and the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee had agreed to give oral evidence to the Committee, however both the HOC and HOL Committees’ indicated their preference for a Tuesday as they could not accommodate Wednesday.

Agreed: Members agreed to have a working lunch meeting with the HOC and HOL Committees’ from 12.30 to 2 p.m. on a Tuesday date to be confirmed.

Today’s Evidence Sessions

2.08 p.m. Dr Ken Bishop, European Officer, Councillor Jonathan Bell and Councillor Tim Attwood from NILGA joined the meeting.

Ken Bishop, Jonathan Bell and Tim Attwood from the Northern Ireland Local Government Association briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

2.10 p.m. Mr Barry McElduff joined the meeting.

2.15 p.m. Ms Martina Anderson joined the meeting.

2.34 p.m. Mr Tom Elliott joined the meeting.

2.39 p.m. Mr Barry McElduff left the meeting.

2.46 p.m. Dr Ken Bishop, Councillor Jonathan Bell and Councillor Tim Attwood from NILGA left the meeting.

2.47 p.m. Mr Peter Bunting Assistant General Secretary and Mr John O’Farrell Communications Officer from the NIC- ICTU joined the meeting.

Peter Bunting and John O’Farrell from the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

3.07 p.m. Mr Jim Shannon left the meeting.

3.25 p.m. Peter Bunting and Mr John O’Farrell of the ICTU left the meeting.

3.26 p.m. Seamus Gallagher and Sean Kelly, Policy Officers for the NI Environment Link joined the meeting.

Seamus Gallagher and Sean Kelly from the NI Environment Link briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

3.38 p.m. Mr Jim Shannon joined the meeting.

3.49 p.m. Seamus Gallagher and Sean Kelly, from the NI Environment Link left the meeting.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Department requesting further information on the web portals indicating forthcoming EU legislation

6. Matters arising

Executive Response to the Barroso Taskforce Report – response from Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

The Committee noted the response from Committee for Enterprise Trade and Investment.

Executive Response to the Barroso Taskforce Report – response from Committee for Education and the Department of Education.

The Committee noted the response from the Department of Education and the Committee for Education.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to forward these responses to the Department (OFMDFM).

Consideration of EU Issues – further information from Craigavon Borough Council.

The Committee noted the response from Craigavon Borough Council.

4.22 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 1 April 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jimmy Spratt
Ms Martina Anderson

In Attendance: Ms Aoibhinn Treanor (Assembly Clerk)
Ms Patricia Casey (Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr James Quinn (Clerical Officer)

2.25 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

4. Consideration of European Issues

Evidence sessions

The Chairperson informed members that the House of Lords European Select Committee and the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee had agreed to give oral evidence to the Committee on Tuesday 28 April 2009.

Agreed: Members agreed to have a working lunch meeting with the HOC and HOL Committees’ from 12.30 to 2 p.m. on Tuesday 28 April 2009

Agreed: Members agreed to send details of broad lines of questioning in advance to the two Committees.

Today’s Evidence Sessions

2.31 p.m. Ms Francis McCandless, Director of Policy and Ms Lisa McElherron, Policy Manager NICVA joined the meeting.

Ms Francis McCandless and Ms Lisa McElherron from the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

2.43 p.m. Mr Jimmy Spratt joined the meeting

2.50 p.m. Ms Francis McCandless and Ms Lisa McElherron from NICVA left the meeting.

2.51 p.m. Mr Chris Williamson Chief Executive from the NIFHA joined the meeting.

Chris Williamson from the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

3.13 p.m. Mr Jim Shannon left the meeting.

3.17 p.m. Mr Chris Williamson of the NIFHA left the meeting.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to request additional information from NIFHA on individual housing associations.

3.18 p.m. Ms Elizabeth Law, Ms Bronagh Hinds and Ms Anne-Marie Gray, Policy Officers for the NIWEP joined the meeting.

Ms Elizabeth Law, Ms Bronagh Hinds and Ms Anne-Marie Gray from the Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

3.24 p.m. Mr Jim Shannon joined the meeting.

3.53 p.m. Ms Elizabeth Law, Ms Bronagh Hinds and Dr Anne-Marie Gray, from NIWEP left the meeting.

5. Matters Arising

Committee for Finance and Personnel – Official Report of 4 March 2009 - Barroso Taskforce.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to forward to the Department.

4.00 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 22 April 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Ms Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon

In Attendance: Ms Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Tara McKee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr James Quinn (Clerical Officer)

2.02 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

2.05 p.m. Mr Jim Shannon left the meeting

4. Consideration of European Issues

The Chairperson advised members that Irene Oldfather the Chairperson of the European and External Relations Committee, Scottish Parliament has taken ill and is undertaking minimal Parliamentary duties and therefore is unable to attend our evidence session on 6 May 2009.

Agreed: Members agreed that the Clerk issue questions to Irene Oldfather for written answers.

2.09 p.m. Mr Jim Shannon joined the meeting

House of Lords and House of Commons European committees

The Chairperson informed members that Lord Roper will not be attending the meeting next week due to ill health, but is willing to give written answers.

Agreed: Members agreed that the Clerk issue questions to Lord Roper for written answers.

Today’s Evidence Sessions

2.10 p.m. Ms Patricia Lewsley the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People and Mr Gerrry Campbell from the Northern Ireland Commission for Children and Young People joined the meeting.

Ms Patricia Lewsley and Mr Gerry Campbell from NICCY briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

2.36 p.m. Ms Patricia Lewsley and Mr Gerrry Campbell from NICCY left the meeting.

2.37 p.m. Mr David Guilfoyle, Ms Bernice Sweeney, Mr Stephen Hughes, and Ms Corinna Thompson from the Youth Council for Northern Ireland joined the meeting.

Mr David Guilfoyle, Ms Bernice Sweeney, Mr Stephen Hughes, and Ms Corinna Thompson from the Youth Council for Northern Ireland briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

2.59 p.m. Mr Danny Kennedy, Chairperson left the meeting, Ms Naomi Long deputy Chairperson assumed the role of Chairperson in Mr Kennedy’s absence.

3.05 p.m. Mr Ian McCrea left the meeting.

3.17 p.m. Mr Danny Kennedy, Chairperson joined the meeting and resumed his role as Chairperson to the Committee.

3.25 p.m. Mr Tom Elliott left the meeting.

3.28 p.m. Mr Stephen Moutray left the meeting.

3.30 p.m. Mr David Guilfoyle, Ms Bernice Sweeney, Mr Stephen Hughes, and Ms Corinna Thompson from the Youth Council for Northern Ireland left the meeting.

National Assembly of Wales – European and External Affairs Committee

The Chairperson informed members that Mrs Sandie Mewies AM the Chair of the European and External Affairs Committee of the National Assembly of Wales advises that she is unable to come to Northern Ireland to give oral evidence. However she has offered to answer any questions we wish to pose.

Agreed: The Committee agreed that the Clerk issue questions to Mrs Sandie Mewies AM for written answers.

5. Matters arising

3.36 p.m. Mr Stephen Moutray joined the meeting.

3.37 p.m. Mr Jim Shannon left the meeting.

Executive’s Response to the Barroso Taskforce Report – DCAL Response from Minister and Arts Council for Northern Ireland.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to forward the correspondence to the Department.

3.39 p.m. Mr Tom Elliott joined the meeting.

Houses of the Oireachtas – Joint Committee on European Scrutiny

The Committee noted the letter from the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, Houses of the Oireachtas.

3.48 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Tuesday 28 April 2009
Room 135, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Jim Shannon

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Lynda Mulholland (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr James Quinn (Clerical Officer)

1.02 p.m. The meeting opened in public session

2. Consideration of European issues

Mr Michael Connarty MP, Chairman of the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

2.02 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 29 April 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Ms Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Linda Mulholland (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr James Quinn (Clerical Officer)

2.04 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

2.07 p.m. Mr Ian McCrea, Mr Stephen Moutray, Mr Jim Shannon and Mr Jimmy Spratt joined the meeting.

2.08 p.m. Mr Tom Elliott joined the meeting.

2.37 p.m. Mrs Naomi Long left the meeting

5. Consideration of European Issues

The Chairperson advised members that the Children’s Law Centre had confirmed that they are unable to appear before the Committee to provide evidence for the Europe inquiry.

Agreed: Members agreed to write to the Special EU Programmes Body and ask them if they would be prepared to come and give evidence to the Committee on the Europe inquiry.

2.38 p.m. Mr Ronnie Hall from the DG Regional Policy Departmnent of the European Commission joined the meeting.

Mr Ronnie Hall from DG Regional Development briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

3.12 p.m. Mr Tom Elliott left the meeting

3.18 p.m. Mr Ronnie Hall from the DG Regional Policy left the meeting.

3.19 p.m. Mr Barry McElduff left the meeting

3.20 p.m. Mr Wilfred Mitchell, Mr Paul Givan and Mr George Dorrian from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) joined the meeting.

Mr Wilfred Mitchell, Mr Paul Givan and Mr George Dorrian from the FSB briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

3.36 p.m. Mr Stephen Moutray left the meeting.

3.39 p.m. Mr Tom Elliott joined the meeting

3.49 p.m. Mr Wilfred Mitchell, Mr Paul Givan and Mr George Dorrian from the FSB left the meeting.

Agreed: The Committee asked the FSB to provide further information on the Small Business Act and the Supply Chain Network.

6. Matters arising

3.53 p.m. Mr Stephen Moutray joined the meeting.

3.54 p.m. Mr Francie Molloy left the meeting

EU Match Funding response from DFP

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to request further information on EU funding.

Houses of the Oireachtas – Joint Committee on European Affairs

The Committee noted the letter from the Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs.

3.55 p.m. Mr Barry McElduff joined the meeting.

3.56 p.m. Mr Francie Molloy joined the meeting

4.39 p.m. Mr Stephen Moutray left the meeting.

9. Consideration of European Issues (continued)

4.40 p.m. Mr Trevor Newsom from the Directors Office, Queens University Belfast (QUB) joined the meeting.

Mr Trevor Newsom from QUB briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

4.57 p.m. Mr Trevor Newsom from the Directors Office, QUB left the meeting.

5.02 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 6 May 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Ms Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Linda Mulholland (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr James Quinn (Clerical Officer)

2.06 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

2.07 p.m. Mr Jim Shannon left the meeting

4. Consideration of European Issues

2.09 p.m. Dr Ian Duncan from the Office of the Scottish Parliament in Brussels joined the meeting.

2.10 p.m. Mr Jim Shannon and Mr Barry McElduff joined the meeting.

Dr Ian Duncan from the Office of the Scottish Parliament in Brussels briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

2.15 p.m. Mr Stephen Moutray joined the meeting

2.22 p.m. Mr Jimmy Spratt joined the meeting

2.36 p.m. Mr Barry McElduff left the meeting

2.45 p.m. Mr Tom Elliott left the meeting

2.50 p.m. Mr Ian Duncan from the Office of the Scottish Parliament in Brussels left the meeting.

3.01 p.m. Mr Barry McElduff joined the meeting

Clawback of EU Grants – response from Committee for Finance and Personnel

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Committee for Finance and Personnel to request a further update on the potential clawback of EU grants.

6. Consideration of European Issues (continued)

3.20 p.m. Ms Evelyn Collins, Mr Bob Collins and Mrs Jane Morrice from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) joined the meeting.

Ms Evelyn Collins, Mr Bob Collins and Mrs Jane Morrice from the ECNI briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

3.44 p.m. Mr Jim Shannon left the meeting.

3.56 p.m. Ms Evelyn Collins, Mr Bob Collins and Mrs Jane Morrice from the ECNI left the meeting.

3.56 p.m. Mr Stephen Moutray left the meeting.

3.57 p.m. Mr Graham Furey and Mr Clarke Black from the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) joined the meeting.

Mr Graham Furey and Mr Clarke Black from the UFU briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to request a copy of Executive Ministerial attendance in Europe and forward to UFU for information.

4.20 p.m. Mrs Dolores Kelly left the meeting.

4.30 p.m. Mr Graham Furey and Mr Clarke Black from the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) left the meeting.

4.37 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 13 May 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr James Quinn (Clerical Officer)

2.12 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

2. Chairperson’s Business

The Chairperson advised members that he, Mr Francie Molloy and the Clerk had met with representatives of the Saxony-Anhalt Parliament on Thursday 7 May 2009 and that a note of the meeting would issue in due course.

The Chairperson advised members that the European Committees’ of both the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament have carried out some work on the European Economic Recovery Plan.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Department to request an oral briefing on what the Department is doing on the European Economic Recovery Plan.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to forward a copy of the European Economic Recovery Plan to the Committee for Finance and Personnel and also agreed to provide to that Committee an update on the work being carried out on the Plan when received.

2.14 p.m. Mr Jimmy Spratt joined the meeting

2.15 p.m. Mr Tom Elliott joined the meeting

2.25 p.m. Mrs Dolores Kelly joined the meeting

2.37 p.m. Mr Tom Elliott left the meeting

5. Consideration of European Issues

3.04 p.m. Ms Frances Dowds from the Northern Ireland Anti Poverty Network (NIAPN) joined the meeting.

Ms Frances Dowds Director from the NIAPN briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

3.28 p.m. Ms Frances Dowds from the NIAPN left the meeting.

4.16 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 27 May 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Jim Shannon

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)
James Quinn (Clerical Officer)

2.14 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

2. Chairperson’s Business

The Chairperson advised members that he, Mrs Long, Mr Molloy and Mr McElduff met with representatives of the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona and had a series of useful informative meetings. He further advised that a report of the visit would issue in due course.

3.01 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 10 June 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)

2.06 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

2.10 p.m. Mr Shannon joined the meeting

2.18 p.m. Mr Spratt joined the meeting.

2.52 p.m. Mrs Kelly left the meeting

2.53 p.m. Ms A Cassidy from Autism NI and Mr K McCarthy left the meeting.

5. Consideration of European Issues

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Department to request an update on the recommendations from the Committee of the Centre’s original EU inquiry

2.54 p.m. Mr P Colgan, Chief Executive of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) joined the meeting.

Mrs Long declared an interest as Chairperson of the Good Relations Steering Panel within Belfast City Council

3.00 p.m. Mrs Kelly joined the meeting

Mr P Colgan of the SEUPB briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

3.23 p.m. Mr Spratt left the meeting.

3.32 p.m. Mr P Colgan, Chief Executive of the SEUPB left the meeting.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to request an update report on the uptake of the current Interreg Programme and details of organisations that SEUPB provide policy advice and funding.

3.34 p.m. Mr A McCulla, Chief Executive of the Anglo North Irish Fish Producers Association (ANIFPO) joined the meeting.

Mr A McCulla of ANIFPO briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

3.48 p.m. Mr Moutray left the meeting.

3.49 p.m. Mrs Kelly left the meeting

4.08 p.m. Mr A McCulla, Chief Executive of ANIFPO left the meeting.

6. Matters arising

Web-Based Portal for European Information

Agreed: The Committee agreed to note the Department’s response but will consider as part of the EU inquiry.

Written Submission from the National Assembly for Wales –
European and External Affairs Committee

Agreed: The Committee noted the response from the European and External Affairs Committee of the National Assembly for Wales and agreed that the document will be added to the Committee’s EU inquiry.

Report on video conference with the National Assembly of Wales –
European and External Affairs Committee

Agreed: The Committee noted the report of the video conference with the European and External Affairs Committee of the National Assembly for Wales and agreed to add the report to the Committee’s EU inquiry.

Response from Houses of the Oireachtas – Joint Committee on European Affairs

Agreed: The Committee noted the response from the Joint Committee on European Affairs of the Houses of the Oireachtas and agreed that the document will be added to the Committee’s EU inquiry.

4.25 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 17 June 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)

2.09 p.m. The meeting opened in public session.

1. Apologies

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) and Mr Jimmy Spratt

The Clerk advised members that as the Chairperson and deputy Chairperson were not present, members should elect a temporary Chairperson to take charge of the meeting.

Mr Shannon proposed Mr Molloy and Ms Anderson seconded the proposal, the Committee agreed that Mr Molloy assume the position of temporary Chairperson.

4. Briefing on European Economic Recovery Plan

2.15 p.m. Departmental Officials Mr D Prince and Mr B Clulow joined the meeting.

2.15 p.m. Mr Moutray joined the meeting.

Mr D Prince and Mr B Clulow briefed the Committee on the European Economic Recovery Plan. This was followed by a question and answer session.

2.17 p.m. Mr McElduff joined the meeting.

2.31 p.m. Mrs Long joined the meeting.

2.40 p.m. Departmental Officials Mr D Prince and Mr B Clulow left the meeting.

2.41 p.m. Mrs Long took over the role of Chairperson.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Department to request a copy of information the Department obtained from banks regarding drawdown and allocation of funding from the European Investment Bank.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to request details from the other devolved institutions on the drawdown of funding from the European Investment Bank.

5. Consideration of European Issues

The Clerk advised members that Mrs E Kelly a desk officer within the NI Executive Office in Brussels who was to brief the Committee as part of the inquiry into the consideration of European issues was now unable to attend. The Clerk added that the Department are to write to the Committee explaining Mrs Kelly’s non-appearance before the Committee.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to await the Department’s letter on Mrs Kelly’s attendance.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Department to formally request Mrs E Kelly to appear before the Committee at a later date.

6. Matters arising

Report on meeting with Saxony-Anhalt Parliament.

The Committee noted the report of the meeting with members of the Saxony-Anhalt Parliament, held in Edinburgh on 7 May 2009.

2.50 p.m. Mr McCrea left the meeting.

2.59 p.m. Mr McCrea joined the meeting.

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development response on Match Funding.

Agreed: The Committee noted the response from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development on EU Match Funding and agreed that the information will be added to the Committee’s EU inquiry.

Claw Back of EU Grants Update.

The Committee noted the update paper provided by the Department of Finance and Personnel on the clawback of EU grants.

3.11 p.m. The deputy Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 24 June 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Barry McElduff

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)

The meeting opened at 2.13 p.m. in public session

2.15 p.m. Mrs Kelly joined the meeting

7. Matters arising

Federation of Small Businesses – Further Information in EU Issues.

The Committee noted the further information on the Small Business Act and the Supply Chain Network supplied by the Federation for Small Businesses.

Departmental Response – Attendance of Official at EU Inquiry.

The Committee noted the response from the Department on the non-attendance of an official at the Committee meeting of 17 June 2009 and noted that the official will now appear before the Committee on 1 July 2009.

4.10 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 1 July 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Colin Wilson (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)

The meeting opened at 2.05 p.m. in public session

2.08 p.m. Ms Anderson joined the meeting.

4. Consideration of European Issues

2.09 p.m. Mrs E Kelly from the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels joined the meeting.

Mrs E Kelly briefed the Committee on European issues. This was followed by a question and answer session.

2.38 p.m. Mrs Long left the meeting.

2.40 p.m. Mrs E Kelly from the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels left the meeting.

3.24 p.m. Mr Kennedy joined the meeting and took over the role of Chairperson.

3.55 p.m. Mr Shannon left the meeting.

9. Matters arising

EU Issues Paper.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to examine the issues paper over the summer recess and forward any amendments/additions to the Committee Office for consideration at a further meeting in September.

EU Issues – Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment Response.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment requesting a written briefing from their Department on the role of their EU Programmes Branch.

European Investment Bank Funding – Departmental Response.

4.30 p.m. Mr Spratt left the meeting.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to request a briefing on the drawdown and allocation of funding from the European Investment Bank.

4.33 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 9 September 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)

The meeting opened at 2.02pm in public session.

2.31 p.m. Mr McCrea left the meeting.

4.02 p.m. Mr Shannon left the meeting.

4.05 p.m. Mr McElduff left the meeting.

13. EU Report

Agreed: The Committee agreed that it would forward comments on the draft EU report to the Clerk for consideration at the Committee meeting on 23 September 2009.

4.47 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 23 September 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr George Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)

The meeting opened at 2.13pm in public session.

2.51 p.m. Mr Moutray left the meeting.

4.11 p.m. Mr Elliott left the meeting.

10. European Report

Agreed: The Committee agreed to schedule in an additional meeting to enable them to consider the report in full.

4.26 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 30 September 2009
Room 152, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr George Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)

The meeting opened at 2.03 p.m. in public session

3.27 p.m. Mr Spratt left the meeting.

8. Matters arising

Consideration of the Committee’s European Report

Agreed: The Committee agreed to consider its European Report at its meeting of 21 October 2009.

4.03 p.m. The Deputy Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 21 October 2009
Room 30, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Tom Elliott
Mt Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr George Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)
Ms Eilis Haughey (Bill Clerk)

The meeting opened at 2.04pm in public session.

9. Draft European Report

Members considered the Committee’s draft European Report.

Agreed: Members agreed that it would consider a further draft of the Committee’s European Report at its meeting of Wednesday 11 November 2009.

5.05 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 11 November 2009
Room 30, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr George Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)

The meeting opened at 2.04pm.

2.53 p.m. The meeting moved into closed session.

8. European Report

The Committee considered its European Report and agreed to consider further following the receipt of additional information.

3.00 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 18 November 2009
Room 30, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr George Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)

The meeting opened at 2.02pm in public session.

2.48 p.m. The meeting moved into closed session.

10. European Report

A Senior Researcher from the Assembly’s Research and Library Services briefed the Committee on how other legislatures consider European issues and subsidiarity. The Committee considered further its European Report.

3.35 p.m. The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 25 November 2009
Room 30, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr George Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)

The meeting opened at 2.06 pm in public session.

The meeting moved into closed session at 3.14 p.m.

11. Consideration of draft European Report

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 1-15 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 16 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 17-22 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 23 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 24 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 25 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 26-30 of the draft report.

The meeting was suspended at 3.30 p.m.

The meeting resumed at 3.45 p.m.

Mr Kennedy, Mrs Long, Ms Anderson, Mr Robinson, Mr Shannon and Mr Spratt were present.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 31 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee deferred consideration of paragraph 32 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Action 1 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Action 2 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 33 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Action 3 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 34 of the draft report.

Mr Elliott joined the meeting at 3.51 p.m.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 35 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Action 4 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 36 of the draft report.

Mr Shannon left the meeting at 3.53 p.m.

The Committee considered and agreed Action 5 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 37-38 of the draft report.

Mr Shannon rejoined the meeting at 3.57 p.m.

The Committee considered and agreed Action 6 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 39-40 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Action 7 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee deferred consideration of paragraph 41 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 42-43 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Action 8 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Action 9 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 44 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed to delete Action 10 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 45-47 of the draft report.

The Committee deferred consideration of Action 11 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 48-51 of the draft report.

The Committee deferred consideration of Action 12 of the draft report.

Mr Shannon left the meeting at 4.08 p.m.

The Committee deferred consideration of paragraphs 52-53 of the draft report.

The Committee deferred consideration of Action 13 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 54-55 of the draft report.

Mr Elliott left the meeting at 4.20 p.m.

The Committee deferred consideration of Recommendation 1 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 56 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 2 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 57-62 of the draft report.

Mr Elliott rejoined the meeting at 4.26 p.m.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 3 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 63-65 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed to move paragraph 66 of the report to the section for the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 4 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 5 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed a second paragraph 66 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 67 of the draft report.

The Committee deferred consideration of Recommendation 6 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 68 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendations 7-8 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 69-74 of the draft report.

The Committee deferred consideration of Recommendation 9 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 75-76 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 10 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 77 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 11 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 78 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 12 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 79-81 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 13 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 82 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 14 of the draft report.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to forward issues raised during evidence sessions which did not fit into the inquiry’s Terms of Reference to the Department for consideration.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to forward issues raised during evidence sessions which were outside the remit of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to the other relevant statutory committees for consideration.

The Chairperson adjourned the meeting at 4.55 p.m.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 9 December 2009
Room 30, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)

Apologies: Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr George Robinson

The meeting opened at 2.04 p.m. in public session.

The meeting moved into closed session at 3.45 p.m.

Mr Shannon left the meeting at 3.45 p.m.

Mr Spratt left the meeting at 3.46 p.m.

9. Consideration of draft European Report

The Chairperson advised Members that he and the Clerk will meet with the Assembly Commission on Thursday 10 December to discuss the Committee’s European Report and the Recommendations for the Assembly Commission. The Chairperson advised that the Committee will consider the Report again at the first meeting following Recess on 13 January 2010.

The Chairperson adjourned the meeting at 3.50 p.m.

[EXTRACT]

Wednesday 13 January 2010
Room 30, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr George Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

In Attendance: Mrs Cathie White (Assembly Clerk)
Mrs Linda Gregg (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Keith McBride (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Mrs Marion Johnson (Clerical Officer)

Apologies: Mr Jimmy Spratt

The meeting opened at 2.03 p.m. in public session.

1. Apologies

Apologies are detailed above.

Mr McElduff left the meeting at 3.20 p.m.

Mrs Long left the meeting at 3.31 p.m.

Mr Attwood left the meeting at 4.05 p.m.

The meeting moved into closed session at 4.05 p.m.

11. Consideration of draft European Report

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 32 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 41 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 47 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Action 10 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Action 11 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraphs 53-54 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Action 12 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 1 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 2 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed to put Recommendation 3 under a new heading of Recommendation for the Speaker.

The Committee considered and agreed to rescind its decision of 25 November 2009 regarding the wording of Recommendation 4 and agreed Recommendation 4 as amended of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 7 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed paragraph 70 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 9 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 11 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed Recommendation 12 of the draft report.

The Committee considered and agreed to rescind its decision of 25 November 2009 regarding the wording of paragraph 81 agreed paragraph 81 as amended of the report.

The Committee considered and agreed the Executive Summary as amended.

Mr Attwood rejoined the meeting at 4.23 p.m.

The Committee agreed to include the following appendices:

Appendix 1 – Minutes of Proceedings

Appendix 2 – Minutes of Evidence

Appendix 3 – Written Submissions to the Committee

Appendix 4 – List of Witnesses

Appendix 5 – Reports of visits and fact-finding meetings

Appendix 6 – Correspondence – Barroso Action Plan

Appendix 7 – Correspondence – Further information

Agreed: Members agreed that an extract from the Minutes of Proceedings of today’s meeting should be included in Appendix 1 of the report and are content that the Chairperson agrees the minutes to allow the extract to be included in the printed report.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to produce the Executive Summary of the Report and List of Recommendations in colour.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to order the Report to be printed.

Agreed: The Committee agreed a motion to debate the Report in plenary.

The Chairperson adjourned the meeting at 4.37 p.m.

[EXTRACT]

Appendix 2

Minutes of Evidence

12 November 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:
Mr Maurice Maxwell (European Commission)

1. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): I now welcome Maurice Maxwell, and I congratulate him on his recent appointment to the EU office in Belfast. I apologise because I must leave; I will hand over to the Deputy Chairperson for a brief period. I hope to rejoin the meeting as quickly as possible. No discourtesy is intended.

(The Deputy Chairperson in the Chair)

2. Mr Maurice Maxwell (European Commission): None is taken. I thank the Chairman and the Committee for the chance to speak to you. It is a pleasure and privilege to be back home. I have been out of here for 30 years, but I have always referred to Northern Ireland as home. It is also a great pleasure and privilege to represent the European Commission here. I have not been in my position long — I took it up on 1 September — so I ask you to bear with me.

3. I have provided the Committee with a paper outlining what my office does. Rather than repeating the contents of that paper, I will try to give you a flavour of what we do daily and monthly. I will then address some of the issues that are raised by the Barroso report. I will not go into the report’s conclusions, but I will talk about how people in Brussels feel about the report and the feelings that I have noticed in my short time in Belfast.

4. Our office is the official voice of the European Commission in Northern Ireland. We think of ourselves as the first point of contact for citizens, Departments and Members of the Assembly who want information and background on the European Commission in particular and the European Union in general. Our office also has a reporting role to Brussels. We are not only here to give out information; we are here to glean information on the social, economic and political situation in Northern Ireland. We report that back to Brussels so that my colleagues in the Commission understand the background to some of the issues that appear on their desks.

5. The office provides an information point, which is open to the public. Anyone can walk in and ask for information on any subject. There are a limited number of staff, who help with the answers to those questions. If anyone wants further research undertaken, we try to carry that out for them. We hope to move to new offices next February, and we will try to expand the information point and make it more user-friendly by bringing in more modern communication techniques and increased access to databases.

6. Each year, we organise several events. I will not go into detail on all of those. One recent event, Opportunity Europe, was held over two days at the end of October and was attended by around 3,000 students. We try to focus our event activity on young people, because that is where the future lies. Newspapers are constantly negative about Europe. They seem to have one complaint after another. If it is not agriculture policy, it is demands for the return of money. That gives a bad image of what the Commission is trying to do, so we try to offset that to a certain extent and give young people a better feeling of what Europe is about.

7. During Opportunity Europe, we tried to give the students a feeling for the diversity in Europe. Europe’s motto — although it is an unofficial motto because the constitutional treaty was never passed — is “Unity and Diversity". We try to convey the message that the European Commission and the European Union are not trying to homogenise everyone’s views and make everyone conform to one image. In fact, the opposite is the case. We try to rejoice in our differences — the different languages, for example — and we value the different cultures that exist in Europe. We see that as a strength rather than a drawback.

8. Recently, we held a mock European Council in Parliament Buildings. That involved students from different schools pretending to be the European Council. The students played a role representing a member state and were given matters to discuss, which they had to research to get a deeper knowledge of the issues under discussion. The students then had to take the floor and try to present each member state’s view, having studied what the representatives of that member state may think about a certain issue. At the end of the day, we tried to reach some form of agreement on the issues.

9. Again, the message there is that it is not the European Commission that imposes its will on the citizens of Europe, but rather the citizens of Europe — through their representatives in the European Council and the European Parliament — who ultimately take those decisions.

10. The role of the representation offices is developing in Europe. In May 2006, the Commission took a decision on co-operation between the Commission and national Parliaments. The Commission decided to transmit directly to national Parliaments all new proposals and consultation papers, within the remit of the current treaties. The Commission will invite reaction to those, in order to improve the process of policy formulation.

11. Therefore, before legislation is adopted and becomes a fait accompli, there is an ongoing process of consultation whereby the Commission — with the agreement of the European Council — invites national Parliaments to comment and contribute to the debates on legislation and other matters that may emanate from the European Commission. The Commission tries its best to take those comments into account.

12. The Commission deals directly with the national Parliaments but, given the devolved nature of the Administration in Northern Ireland, there is a need for co-operation between the devolved Administration and the national Parliament in Westminster to ensure that the Assembly and the Executive are sufficiently informed of the consultations that are taking place, so that you can take your proper place in those discussions on a timely basis and not be faced with a fait accompli.

13. In my office in Belfast, we try to co-ordinate our actions with those of the Brussels office. I believe that we do that very successfully; we have a good relationship with Ms Cummins and her colleagues. We meet regularly here and in Brussels, and I also have a close relationship with Dr Geddis, which enhances the process. We try to complement each other’s actions and avoid duplicating what the other party is doing.

14. Before coming to the Committee, I tried to do some homework. As you know, I am a new boy, so I need to do a bit of background study. In researching the work of the Assembly as it was in 2002, I found a very substantial document that contains masses of information and remains relevant to the work of the Assembly. I will not go into the details of that, but it contained many recommendations on how to engage with the European Union. I suspect that most of those recommendations are still relevant to some degree. I am sure that the Committee has a copy of that document and that members will have time to study it.

15. Tellingly, the study noted that EU policies affected 80% of the Programme for Government, as it was then. That puts the discussion into context, because I doubt that that figure has decreased much in the meantime. The report also echoed some of the questions that have been asked today. It asked to what degree a small region such as Northern Ireland, with limited resources, can influence and shape EU policies and legislation. It also asked questions about the extent to which a devolved Administration can ensure that it is part of the decision-making and consultation process earlier, rather than being faced with a fait accompli. Things have moved on since 2002, and the Commission has taken the initiative to consult national Parliaments. Therefore, that problem may already have been addressed.

16. ‘Taking Our Place in Europe’ sets out Northern Ireland’s 2006-2010 strategy for engagement with Europe. It identifies priority areas of action and mechanisms and processes that can achieve the desired results. That document is valuable and could be of use to the Committee. I am sure that it will be taken into account.

17. The Executive’s 2008-2011 Programme for Government states:

“Growing the economy is our top priority. This is vital if we are to provide the wealth and resources required to build the peaceful, prosperous, fair and healthy society we all want to see. We need to meet the challenges of global competition and take advantage of new opportunities to make our economy more competitive, deliver increased prosperity and tackle disadvantage and poverty … We have much goodwill and support both at home and abroad — including from the United States and the European Union — to help us realise the opportunities and address the challenges we face. We will seek to build on this".

18. That leads me to President Barroso’s visit last May. He was the first international leader to visit here after the formation of the new Administration and the first to be met by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. The Commission feels that the President made that visit to underline his view that the creation of the new Administration here was historic and that the Commission wanted to help as much as possible. He came here to recognise the importance of the situation and offer the Commission’s help to the people of Northern Ireland in making a success of the steps that have been taken and in moving to a better, more peaceful future. Ultimately, the Commission is a bureaucracy, and that led to the setting up of a task force and a report, which I do not need to explain in any detail because Committee members have copies.

19. Time elements come into play in all of these issues. President Barroso came to Northern Ireland last May and made the offer amid a certain euphoria surrounding what had happened. The message may be that there is a time to grasp an opportunity. I would not say that that time has passed; however, as with everything in life, people have concentration limits.

20. Expectations about the results of our work must not be raised too high. It is important to keep our feet on the ground and to identify priorities that will add the most value to Northern Ireland in the context of its dealings with the European Union. That work is not restricted to central Government or Departments. Local government representatives, the business community, academia and civil society must be involved. To that end, a formal process must be created; it is difficult to engage with partners if no common position exists in which those things can be debated. Time limits also come into play in that respect.

21. My final message is that the Commission came and made a unique offer to the local Administration that has not been repeated anywhere else in Europe. I know that that offer is being worked upon, and that progress has already been made on the ground both here and in Brussels, but I am sure that more can be done. I am glad that the Committee’s work has started; it will help the process.

22. Mr Elliott: You talked about bringing academia, civil society and businesspeople into the process; what is your train of thought on how to do that?

23. Mr Maxwell: I read the report and interpret the spirit behind President Barroso’s initiative as more of an attempt to change a mindset than a series of measures. It is an effort to bring to the fore, among all elements of society, the consciousness that we are as much part of the European Union as anybody else. Sometimes, I get the feeling that people in Northern Ireland believe that the European Union is remote — something in which they are not particularly involved. They may readily accept EU benefits, but when the slightest thing goes wrong — which will always happen — people are not slow to voice criticism. That is not exceptional; it happens everywhere in the European Union.

24. Mr Elliott: I must say that that sounds like some people in Fermanagh and Tyrone who say that the Assembly is some way removed from them.

25. The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs Long): Indeed, maybe they should be grateful for that. There are no more questions. Thank you for your attendance and presentation, which are appreciated.

26. Mr Maxwell: May I just address the important questions raised earlier about money issues?

27. The Deputy Chairperson: Yes.

28. Mr Maxwell: I am aware about reports in the press about the £42 million and the clawback. The information that I have from Brussels is that there are potential problems with the audit trail, which mainly consists of supporting documentation for action. There is no suggestion of fraud or anything like that; I think that it is just the necessary paperwork being supplied in different contexts. My information is that this is an ongoing process. As yet there have been no final decisions, and there are no final amounts to be taken back. I have been told that those decisions will not be taken before March 2009.

29. This is an ongoing story that has to be set in the context of the Court of Auditors. The press is very happy to jump on this issue and claim that we are a profligate body which throws European tax money out of the window without proper controls. If there are consequences when our auditors are sent in, then of course, there will always be someone who suffers those consequences. At the moment there is no conclusion or consequence; we have not yet come to the end of the story.

30. Mr Spratt: That figure of £680 million, which goes across other regions as well, seems to suggest a serious problem with audit trails. If that goes back to the 1990s, then it throws a question mark over Europe and its audit of situations like that. If that money has already been spent on regeneration programmes, who is going to pay? In the context of Northern Ireland, the figure is £53 million, and I assume that the poor old Northern Ireland taxpayer will have to pick up the tab. There are serious questions to be asked; this is a negative story about Europe, and it should be seen as such.

31. Mr Maxwell: I do not know whether you want me to comment on that. It is a story that has been ongoing ever since we started spending money. Every organisation that is responsible for spending money is open to accusations concerning a lack of proper controls. Over the years, most of the complaints have been that the Commission has not had proper controls, and we have been trying to improve that situation. Unfortunately, in this case — although, as I said, there has been no conclusion yet — it may be that those proper controls, or the respect for them, have not been there, and that has been picked up by the Commission.

32. We are not yet at the finger-pointing stage of saying who is to blame. The processes and rules are there and should be respected, and we are looking into whether or not they have been. I am sure that members of this Committee would be the first to jump on the Commission for not doing its job, if we had been giving out taxpayers’ money without the proper supporting evidence for doing so. We are trying to do the job properly, we are trying to see that taxpayers’ money is spent properly; we are in the middle of that story and we do not know what the conclusion will be.

33. Mr Spratt: I want to come back on that, Chairperson.

34. The Deputy Chairperson: I am conscious of time. There are a couple of items on the agenda and a number of colleagues have to leave shortly, which could leave us inquorate. This is an ongoing discussion, which is going to continue. Can we park it at this point, and move on? I do not want to risk our becoming inquorate while there is still business to complete. Is that OK, Jimmy?

35. Mr Spratt: I am happy with that.

12 November 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Ms Evelyn Cummins
Dr Paul Geddis

Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

36. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): The Committee welcomes Ms Evelyn Cummins, director of the European division of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), and Mr Maurice Maxwell, head of the European Commission’s office in Belfast. Mr Maxwell is a recent appointee, and we congratulate him on that. They are here to give evidence regarding our consideration of European issues. The Clerk’s brief highlights areas that members may wish to raise with Evelyn and Maurice, and members have a copy of the Committee’s action plan in respect of EU issues; a copy of the research paper on EU offices of regional legislatures; a copy of the summary of the Barroso task force report on Northern Ireland; and written submissions from Ms Cummins and Mr Maxwell. I advise members that this session is being recorded by Hansard.

37. Ms Evelyn Cummins (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): Hello, everyone. I have met a few of the members of the Committee, particularly on an occasion in June, when a delegation visited Brussels and was facilitated by our office in an exploratory visit and meetings on European issues generally and also on the ongoing work in relation to the European Commission’s task force on Northern Ireland. That was known as the Barroso task force, mainly because it was created following an announcement by the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, when he visited Northern Ireland in 2007.

38. I will not go through the details of my paper, but instead highlight a few issues. My colleague, Paul Geddis, whom I should have introduced first, is known to Committee members, both in the context of the visit to Brussels and in the context of briefing work on the Lisbon Treaty that he has done previously for the Committee.

39. The Chairperson: On the Committee’s behalf, I want to record publicly our appreciation for all of the assistance that you gave us on that visit. We found it informative and useful.

40. Ms Cummins: Thank you, Chairman. I will pass that on.

41. Our submission outlines the role of the European division in OFMDFM, how it is divided and what its specific functions are. As I said, I will not go into the details of that. However, we are happy to take specific questions on any aspect of our business.

42. I want to mention the context in which we operate with regard to constraints and opportunities. Paragraph 4 describes our formal links with the UK’s permanent representation to the EU (UKRep), which is primarily to do with UK policy on European matters. We work closely with them, as our colleagues in various Departments in the Northern Ireland Administration do with their various Whitehall and other UK colleagues, in the formulation, development and monitoring of UK policy on EU matters. Therefore, our presence in Brussels helps to strengthen those working links, gives us early access to information and enables us to advise and relay to the Northern Ireland Administration the proposals that come from Europe so that we can be guided by them on their priorities and the implications for policy in Northern Ireland.

43. In that context, we also have links, which are slightly less formal but equally important, with Scotland and Wales. The division in Belfast, as members are aware, works closely with other Departments to monitor various aspects of European business and also in working links with many of Northern Ireland’s representatives in Europe.

44. Moving on to the strategic approach to Europe, I know that there is particular interest in the work of the task force. Members are aware that the task force completed its report in April. I am sure that members have had an opportunity to study the content of that report, which is, essentially, a stocktake of Northern Ireland’s position with regard to Europe — its level of engagement and how it has benefited from and used European moneys, particularly structural funds. It is also an outline of other opportunities and recommendations on the extent to which Northern Ireland can maximise those opportunities in the future. Under the leadership of our two junior Ministers, we are formulating a response to the report. At this point, it is not complete. Therefore, I will not be able to discuss its contents. It is not yet a complete document approved by the Executive. However, it is moving in that direction.

45. There many other ways in which Northern Ireland has adopted, and continues to adopt, a strategic approach to Europe. That comes through individual Departments as well as by this Department in particular, through the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, which is attended by the Department’s junior Ministers. If members wish, I can talk about the sorts of policy areas that are discussed in that Committee.

46. The task force, its report, and — in all likelihood — our response to the report will contain actions across a very wide range of devolved policy areas, and those are obviously of interest to this Committee. However, as the Committee is probably aware, the broad themes are: enhancing European engagement; making the best use of competitive funding; raising the profile of Northern Ireland; and making and strengthening beneficial links with other regions in Europe.

47. The overall context of the task force and our response to it will be the Programme for Government and the Lisbon strategy — Europe’s strategy for jobs and growth.

48. The Chairperson: Thank you. ‘Taking Our Place in Europe’ seems to be the strategic document from which you are working. What are the practical outworkings of that? Do you find it useful in ensuring that individual Departments in this Administration play a proactive part in Europe?

49. Ms Cummins: I would not say otherwise, since Dr Geddis very much led the work with the other Departments of developing the strategy, which was published in 2006. The document has formed a very useful baseline from which to develop a more detailed and action-based strategy that will form part of the work on the task force.

50. It was, and is, an overarching document that highlights opportunities, contacts and the various links and responsibilities in European affairs. It also highlights those who could play a useful part in the Taking Our Place in Europe strategy, without making specific recommendations.

51. Dr Paul Geddis (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): Taking Our Place in Europe was a direct rule strategy that continued into the period of devolution, and it was sent to Ministers at that point. It was always the intention that the strategy would contain a detailed action plan. However — as the Committee is aware — President Barroso visited Northern Ireland on 1 May 2007, before the new devolved Administration took office, and offered the services of his task force working group.

52. As a consequence, work on the implementation plan for the strategy was put on hold until we understood how our response to the Commission’s stocktake would develop, and how that could then be related to the strategy. That is our current position. The Taking Our Place in Europe strategy concludes in 2010, so once we have understood the Executive’s response to Barroso’s proposals, it may then be time to re-examine the strategy.

53. Mr Shannon: As you probably expected, I have a few questions.

54. The Chairperson: You surprise me.

55. Mr Shannon: At our meeting in Brussels in June, the Committee suggested ideas to strengthen the relationship between the Assembly and the Brussels office. Has there been any further contact to develop those ideas? The Committee was concerned that decisions taken in Brussels take a long time to filter through to the Assembly, at which point it is too late for us to become involved.

56. Are local councils contacted about European legislation? Given that the review of public administration will establish a smaller group of councils, such a relationship will, perhaps, be easier to achieve in future. Have you made any inroads on that matter?

57. Ms Cummins: The points that the Committee made during its visit to Brussels were well taken. I understand from the Committee’s action plan that European issues will become a regular feature of its work, and that in itself will help to establish those beneficial links. Furthermore, when the Committee contacts the European division — or any other division in the Administration — to discuss European matters, a relationship will start to be established.

58. There is also the opportunity to form links with Northern Ireland’s representatives in Europe. On your Brussels visit, you did that by meeting the MEPs. However, Northern Ireland also has representatives on the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee. There is, probably, more scope to conduct work, share information and exchange views. Such measures will enhance working relationships and have the potential to create positive results for Northern Ireland.

59. There is considerable involvement at local government level. Belfast City Council has the most active and diverse interest in European policy, and, during my time — and probably before — it has been involved in several worthwhile projects, through which it has made strong linkages. Local government representatives play an important role in raising Northern Ireland’s profile through, for example, European open days, and so on. Officials benefit from and contribute to such initiatives.

60. Mr Shannon: During our discussions, we considered education and how to encourage students to go to Brussels. Have you made any headway on that issue?

61. I want to focus on the big issue of funding opportunities as legislative changes are enacted. We want to be more aware of those matters and learn how the Assembly and the Committee can promote that. The Committee is energised and is eager to address that matter.

62. Have you decided on a new location for the office in Brussels? During our visit, you mentioned that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have direct contact with your branch. You suggested that the Assembly should consider establishing a similar relationship. Have you had any discussions with the First Minister or the deputy First Minister? I am sorry for talking for so long.

63. Ms Cummins: I have not had any discussions with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister about links between you and the Scottish and Welsh legislatures. I am not sure that I was supposed to. I should be more than happy to —

64. Mr Shannon: The figure of £100,000 was mentioned as the cost of setting up one member of staff to work in that office. Is that correct?

65. Ms Cummins: I am not sure. I do not have that information, but I can easily obtain it and report back to the Committee, if that would be helpful.

66. You asked about promoting opportunities for students, and that is a regular feature of our role. We are keen to encourage more students to participate in study programmes. Delegations from the two Northern Ireland universities and the agricultural colleges have visited our offices, as have delegations from Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. An increasing number of civil servants — if you allow me to call them students — are coming to Brussels to study the European institutions.

67. Mr Shannon: They are a different age group — is that what you are saying?

68. Ms Cummins: Yes. We could work to enhance that.

69. We should be happy to be guided by the Committee as to the range of information that it would like us to provide. We could discuss that and agree an approach as part of our working relationship with the Committee.

70. I am rushing through these answers, because I think that Mr Shannon has probably exceeded his quota of questions.

71. Mr Shannon: I am not even looking at the Chairman.

72. The Chairperson: If you did, you would see my glares.

73. Ms Cummins: We have found new offices. We have not yet secured them, but we have submitted a bid and a business case, which are in the system, and we hope that they will be favourably received. We would not have chosen to move to new offices, but it is something that we must do. Location is a priority as far as our work is concerned, and we are doing out best to secure affordable premises as soon as possible next year.

74. Mr Shannon: So, the rapporteur jobs are still there?

75. Ms Cummins: The matter is under active consideration.

76. The Chairperson: Now, Mr Moutray, are there any outstanding questions that Mr Shannon has ignored or overlooked?

77. Mr Moutray: I am not sure whether my question was answered in the melee, but I will attempt to ask it again. I was not able to visit Brussels with the Committee, but having heard the comments from the Chairperson and my colleagues, I definitely feel that I missed out. Perhaps I will get the opportunity at another time.

78. You talked about the close links that your office has with the offices of the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government in Brussels. Have you picked up any examples of good practice? We obviously lag considerably behind other places. Have you detected an enthusiasm within the Assembly to work on European issues?

79. Ms Cummins: The first question is, perhaps, a bit easier to answer. I can cite two policy areas in which the Scottish Government’s office has been very active and has shared good practice. One area is better regulation — the simplification of EU matters, particularly for the benefit of business. The other area is higher education, which, in particular, involves work to stimulate the development of research and innovation projects. Both Scotland and Wales have also been particularly good at staging high-profile events on culture and arts. I must admit that we have some way to go to catch up.

80. Mr Spratt: During our visit to Brussels, Committee members were struck by the amount of networking that takes place, and we discussed that at the time. Some MEPs said that the South, Scotland and Wales and other Governments had established very good networking systems, but suggested that Northern Ireland might be lagging behind to a degree. I asked some questions about that at the time. You mentioned the universities — some of them have permanent staff in Brussels for networking purposes. They can tap into funds for research and all sorts of other projects. You also said that some universities had already visited your office. With research and development in mind, have any of the universities, particularly Queen’s and the University of Ulster, indicated a desire to set up a permanent network in order to tap into money over there?

81. Before I came into the meeting, I briefly scanned an article in today’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’ about a substantial clawback of European money for regeneration projects — some £42 million. Do you have any comment to make on that? It seems to stretch back to the 1990s.

82. Ms Cummins: It would not be wise for me to comment on that, because I did not come prepared with the details. I am not in a position to enlighten you any further. I am aware of it, however, and, if members are interested, I will ask my colleagues in the Department of Finance and Personnel to provide the Committee with a review of that situation, with particular emphasis on the Northern Ireland dimension.

83. Mr Spratt: It is something that we should have on our agenda. The Committee staff are going to find that article for me. If that amount of money is involved, we should be keen to examine the situation and determine what has happened.

84. Ms Cummins: We have an equivalent network to our colleagues in Wales and Scotland, and would probably be able to draw on the same range of contacts and influencers as others. You have made a pertinent point about the universities and about presence in Brussels. Our presence in Brussels amounts to our small team plus two Invest Northern Ireland consultants, who work on inward investment. We do not have a presence in relation to other policy areas.

85. As far as the universities are concerned, a delegation from Queen’s will be going out to Brussels next week to discuss research opportunities, but visits by the universities have largely comprised groups of students rather than university personnel. We are strong on networking, but less so in having a critical mass of people in Brussels. That is something that will inevitably come out of our work on the task force report and our future strategy.

86. Dr Geddis: The Department, and the European policy and co-ordination unit in particular, has administered a Peace II networking measure worth £7 million from the 2000-06 programme, which supported 22 projects, including cross-border projects. Considerable networking experience exists in the region and in the Department in how to create substantive networks that last over time. It is a question of building on that, and seeing the networking as something that develops into partnerships as it evolves. There is considerable technical experience in creating viable networks in Europe and further afield. We commissioned an external evaluation report on that, which was compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers. I will forward it to the Committee.

87. Mr Spratt: The clawback of £53 million in European grants for regeneration projects that go back to the 1990s is a serious issue for taxpayers here. It appears that faulty paperwork is to blame, among other issues. I think that we should be asking questions about it. I hope that it will be given urgent priority, given the enormity of the amounts of money that are being discussed. We should request some full reports on what exactly the issues are around this, exactly what the cost will be to the taxpayer in the future, and why it happened.

88. The Chairperson: OK. We can request a full report from the Department on the issue. Is that agreed?

Members indicated assent.

89. Mr Elliott: One of the main problems that I find, being in a regional Assembly, is that I sometimes do not know where our best lobbying pressure lies. Is it directly to Europe through MEPs, or through Westminster? By way of example, last year, the Agriculture Committee was lobbying for the fishing industry, but our submission had to go through the Department for Environment, Fishing and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). How much pressure do we have as a Committee, or even as an Assembly, in Europe, and what is the most effective way to lobby?

90. Ms Cummins: The answer is that it depends on the issue. In fisheries and agriculture matters there are, at official level and in Europe at council and working-group level, arrangements whereby issues, problems and concerns from Northern Ireland are taken on board and factored into negotiations. I imagine that the answer would be broad; I do not think that there is one single answer to that question; it is dependent on what it is that you want to lobby on. There is no getting away from the fact that agriculture and fisheries are dealt with at UK level, and, while we have an Agriculture Minister, and that Minister is able to, and does, come to Europe to attend the Council of Ministers and talk to the respective Commissioners, DEFRA is the lead Department on agriculture and rural affairs and fisheries.

91. The Chairperson: Do the other devolved Administrations in the United Kingdom or other regional Assemblies throughout Europe have more of a political presence? It cannot be a permanent political presence, but do they have a semi-permanent one, or do they all rely entirely on officials?

92. Ms Cummins: In what regard?

93. The Chairperson: In the overview of European issues. How regularly do Scottish or Welsh Ministers attend meetings or briefings? Do you have any sense of that?

94. Ms Cummins: Yes. I do not have any figures, but it is safe to say that in the cases of both Scotland and Wales there is a more frequent and regular presence in Brussels — both at ministerial and at senior official level — than there is from Northern Ireland. That is clear. I am not sure of the disparity between us and them. England is different; we can more readily compare ourselves to Scotland and Wales. The exceptions to that rule are agriculture and fisheries. That has always been the case.

95. Mr Elliott: Surely that is something that can be built on and improved? I am not criticising, but we should be looking at that and, hopefully, will do so in order to improve matters.

96. The Chairperson: EU regulations are generally unpopular by the time they filter down to us. Logic dictates that it might be better to be involved in the framing of EU regulations, rather than getting involved only at the implementation stage, as we usually do. Can you offer advice or a solution to that problem?

97. Dr Geddis: It is an important distinction. A European directive enters our parliamentary system when the explanatory memorandum arrives in Westminster. The various Administrations may declare that they have an interest, and that sets in train the transposition process for something that has already been decided. Therefore, if there has been inadequate consultation, it is difficult to change the way in which the proposals will be implemented.

98. The way to circumvent that is to engage in Europe before the legislation is agreed. In particular, as the European Commission is the only European institution that can bring forward a proposal for legislation, one must work with the Commission’s services and its functionaries as the legislation is being developed and argued through the various working groups in the European Parliament and, in particular, the Council of the European Union. It all comes back to networking and influencing and building alliances. It is also a matter of ensuring that Departments here work closely with their Whitehall counterparts to ensure that our views are taken on board in European-level negotiations, through the Council. Also, those types of issues can be raised at the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, to which we have referred and which our junior Ministers attend.

99. Mr Spratt: To return to the matter of money, there is obviously an issue with Europe. Over several years, £680 million has been clawed back, which shows that paperwork, form-filling or something serious has gone wrong. I suppose that we all think that the European Union is an expensive monster to feed. I imagine that such figures are only the tip of the iceberg. What sort of regular controls are placed on schemes, for instance, if someone from Northern Ireland was to apply for European funding? If £700 million is having to be paid back over a period of time, the rules do not appear to be tight enough, frankly. As public servants, we should all be concerned about that and about the cost of feeding the monster called Europe.

100. Ms Cummins: A considerable level of control is applied at application, expenditure, monitoring and evaluation levels, both locally and by European auditors. It is not the case that there are no control mechanisms, nor is it the case that those mechanisms are not being applied. However, you asked a fair question; you are talking about a considerable quantum of money, and —

101. Mr Spratt: It is an extremely embarrassing figure.

102. Ms Cummins: You have asked for a detailed report, and that is fair enough.

103. The Chairperson: I thank Ms Cummins and Dr Geddis for attending. No doubt we will be in regular contact.

12 December 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:
Mr Jim Allister MEP
Mr Jim Nicholson MEP

104. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): This morning, we will hear evidence from Jim Allister MEP and Jim Nicholson MEP, which will form part of the Committee’s consideration of EU issues, under its terms of reference. It will also help the Committee to review its forward work programme. We have several apologies, from Naomi Long, Martina Anderson and Dolores Kelly.

105. Members have before them a briefing from the Clerk, which outlines the Committee’s terms of reference. Bairbre de Brún MEP is not available today, but she will meet the Committee in January. I invite Jim Allister to join us.

106. Mr Allister, on behalf the Committee, I welcome you and I thank you for meeting the Committee again. We are renewing contact, having already had contact with you in Brussels in June. As you will know, we are considering European issues and how best the Assembly can work with bodies in Europe and Brussels. We are interested in your views. We anticipate that the session will last approximately 40 minutes, which will include questions and answers. I invite you to make an opening statement, and we will take it from there.

107. Mr Jim Allister MEP: Thank you for your welcome, Mr Chairman. Finding an effective role for a devolved institution in the matrix of the EU is not an easy proposition. I suppose that that is because of the manner in which the EU is constructed. From the perspective of devolved institutions, there is something of a structural deficiency, in that, for very good reasons, the EU is constructed on the apex of member states. Those states make up the essential architecture of the EU and are the given constituent part in respect of each area. In consequence, the structures are designed to consult member states as entities, rather than member states and their regions.

108. Therefore, the first lesson to learn is that for a regional Assembly and Executive to have an effective input into the EU, they must cultivate the route that lies through the parent UK Departments — in essence, that is the way to ensure most influence. When the Council of Ministers meets, under whatever guise — to discuss fisheries, agriculture, environment, and so on — it is the national 27 Ministers from each of the member states who attend. Therefore, Northern Ireland’s interests must be channelled through the national Minister in the relevant Department, for example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

109. Therefore, cultivating a proper ongoing exchange in relationship with the national UK Department must be a vital component of ensuring effective input. In that sense, one could say that devolution inserts another layer of distance from Brussels, because one must go through that process.

110. Europe has increasingly packaged and presented itself as recognising and supporting the regions, but the reality is that its structural architecture throws up a dichotomy in how the regions get an effective say. It is not easy to resolve that riddle, but that is where the Committee of the Regions comes in. However, if one does not make an input, one cannot expect any output. For instance, in two years, a Member of this House — Edwin Poots — has supposedly been a member of the Committee of the Regions, but he has attended plenary sessions only once. That is fairly indicative of how that Assembly Member rates the Committee of the Regions as not very important, and it is also fairly indicative of his party’s opinion of the Committee. Yet, that is the only direct input from local regional representatives in that regard. As I understand it, OFMDFM services that role for members of the Committee of the Regions, so the Committee should perhaps take oversight of that.

111. The key issue relates to how one moves from being reactive to what Brussels does and how one moves from merely responding to what has already been churned out to how one can be proactive in attempting to shape proposals rather than trying to stop the train once it is coming down the tracks. Obviously, that is a much more demanding and difficult exercise than trying to steer the train in the direction that one would like it to go. That is important. Therefore, it is vital to know and keep abreast of what is evolving in the Commission, remembering that only the Commission can propose legislation. Neither the Parliament nor the Council of Ministers can propose legislation — only the Commission can do that.

112. The role of the Northern Ireland Executive Office should be pivotal. However, the criticism in the task force report was that the office’s contact with the Commission is regular, but it is not systematic. However, without systematic contact with the Commission, one is never going to put oneself in the position of effectively shaping what might be coming in your direction. That has to be the key.

113. The Assembly needs to know what is evolving in legislative terms, if it is ever to have meaningful input. For instance, a few weeks ago, the Commission’s legislative and work programme for 2009 was published. I do not know how much the Assembly has acquainted itself with that and with the various propositions contained in it. However, if you are going to have any input, that is the sort of issue that must be tackled on the ground floor.

114. Staying for a moment with the Northern Ireland Executive Office, it is, in part, for you to oversee its function in Brussels. From my own perspective as an MEP, it is pretty much a closed shop. The fundamental question is whether it exists primarily as a PR shop window for OFMDFM, or whether it exists to proactively promote Northern Ireland plc. Is it open and transparent with the members of this Committee, or is it part of OFMDFM’s jealously guarded fiefdom? I do not know.

115. In my experience as an MEP, I have heard less from the Executive office in Brussels since devolution than I did before. One can speculate as to the reasons for that, but in my five years as an MEP I have very seldom received a briefing paper from the Northern Ireland Executive Office on an issue of specific interest to Northern Ireland that is being dealt with in Brussels and which needs to be protected.

116. Little attempt is made to brief the MEPs. At the moment, for example, we are in the throes of the fishing quota negotiations, and unless, as an MEP, I go asking of the Executive office, it never comes to me with information about such matters. That seems to me to be a strategic failure. If this Committee has an oversight role, it should be asking questions about how the Executive office functions.

117. The Assembly must have the capacity to provide input into European matters, and I suggest that that can be achieved by way of two routes — first, through the parent or associated Departments in the UK; and secondly, through the Executive office in Brussels. Furthermore, some sort of parallel relationship and interplay between the MEPs and the Assembly would not go amiss.

118. Structurally, it is likely that the Assembly will need something akin to a European affairs committee, which would take a strategic overview and would inform the other scrutiny Committees about matters that are relevant to their respective Departments. Those Departments should be doing that, but an overview from the legislative side of the Assembly would also be important. There are multiple templates around Europe for such a committee, and I will leave with the Committee Clerk a summation of how every country in the EU deals with the question of scrutiny, some of which are very advanced. The most advanced example of such mechanisms is to be found in Finland, which exercises the most power and control over what its Government does in Europe, closely followed by Germany.

119. The House of Lords in the United Kingdom provides a useful template, because it has a very active European Affairs Committee. Its Chairman sifts through every document that emanates from Europe. Naturally, because they are of little relevance, most of them go in the bin, so to speak. However, about 25% of them are referred on to subcommittees. Each year, those subcommittees might conduct a major inquiry into one or two matters. All relevant Committees then advise a view to Her Majesty’s Government before a decision is taken on behalf of the United Kingdom in the Council of Ministers or the European Council.

120. The House of Lords Committee has regular sessions with the Minister of State for Europe, and the UK Parliament has an agreement with the Government that they will have scrutiny opportunity before the Government commits themselves. There has been some controversy about whether that is always honoured, but the reports in which the House of Lords Committee publishes its scrutiny of various EU proposals are impressive documents. They cannot scrutinise every proposal, because there is a vast array of those, but the Committee certainly does an effective job.

121. The problem for a devolved institution is that, in order to be effective, it must get in even earlier in the process, because its first task is to try to shape the UK Government’s view. Time is short in all of these matters, and the demands on and the requirements of the devolved Assembly are even more difficult.

122. The experience of Scotland is interesting. The Scottish Parliament has a European and External Relations Committee, and one of the relevant features of that — and something that I would certainly urge be established here — is that, before the Council of Ministers meets, the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee receives an annotated agenda of that meeting, accompanied by the Scottish Executive’s view on the matters arising. That has two consequences: it means that the local Department must take a view — which is no bad thing — and it means that the European and External Relations Committee can itself express a view on the view taken by the Executive.

123. Does that happen here? Do Members ever see an agenda for the Council of Ministers meetings in Brussels? Do they ever see an agenda, annotated with the views of the local Executive on issues that arise at that meeting? That is a good model on which to establish a similar facility here. Of course, that raises resource issues — it would be resource intensive; there is no doubt about that.

124. I will say a few words about the effects of the Lisbon Treaty, and what changes will be made if the electorate in the Irish Republic are successfully rolled over and the Treaty comes into play — the new target date is 1 January 2010. Under the Lisbon Treaty, national Parliaments will have eight weeks to scrutinise draft laws. Those proposals can be objected to on the grounds of subsidiarity — the new buzz word that refers to a supposed hierarchy of involvement, whereby, if something can allegedly be done better locally or nationally, then it should not be done at Brussels level. Therein, there will be great dispute as to whether the rules on subsidiarity are being honoured.

125. Under the Lisbon Treaty, if one third of national Parliaments object that a particular proposal offends the subsidiarity rule, then they can serve what is called in the jargon a “yellow card". In other words, the proposal can be held up. The Commission must then reconsider — it is obliged only to reconsider, but is not obliged to change the proposal. If, however, 50% of national Parliaments continue to object — in the present arrangement that would be 14 of the 27 countries — then the Commission has to refer the reasoned objection to both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament on a co-decision basis. That process has been gloriously designated “playing the orange card" — not something to which I would object, as you might imagine.

126. There will be a mechanism for national Parliaments — but not local devolved Parliaments — to object and seek to thwart, or at least delay, a proposition. Therefore, the challenge will be to find an effective way for devolved Assemblies to feed in to that process, and do so in a timely manner. That opens up the front of relationships between devolved Assemblies and the national Parliaments. That is something that, undoubtedly, must be explored.

127. The other issue that was mentioned in the letter that I received was the Barroso task force report. It is necessary to acknowledge its limitations. It does not involve new money, but rather a process of better informing one on how to draw down existing moneys.

128. I think that there was a missed opportunity, particularly as the task force report does not address the very vexing issue of additionality. For all regions, particularly within the United Kingdom, no issue is more vexing than that of additionality.

129. The relevant article of the regulation is very clear in its stipulation. It states that:

“in order to achieve a genuine economic impact, the appropriations of the Funds may not replace public or other equivalent structural expenditure by the member state."

130. In other words, it is meant to be additional.

131. As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, the reality is, by and large, that it is not additional. Funds go into the national UK pot of money that, in turn, reduces the demands on taxation and other means used to make up the national requirement for funding. Therefore, the impact of EU funds in Northern Ireland is spread across the board, rather than being specifically additional.

132. If the local Assembly corrected that, over any other single issue, Northern Ireland would benefit much more from its relationship with the EU. I think that it is a matter of regret that the task force steered around that entire matter.

133. It is also regrettable that the Executive’s response to the task force report has been so tardy. The report was issued in April; it is now the end of the year, and, as far as I am aware, there is still no sign of an Executive response. Even under direct rule, it would not have taken so long. What is holding that up?

134. Has the Committee been involved in, or been consulted on, the Executive’s response? Indeed, was the Committee consulted before OFMDFM’s input on the task force, including the divisive promotion of the Maze shrine, was published? Was the Committee given an opportunity to express a view on that? Surely, in order to be an effective scrutiny device, the Committee must be involved while the Executive is formulating a response.

135. Those are my questions for the Committee; no doubt you have questions for me, which I am happy to answer now.

136. The Chairperson: Thank you very much for your contribution. It was the intention that we would question you.

137. We had hoped to receive a copy of the Executive’s response to Barroso this morning. That has been further delayed; however, we expect to have it at our first meeting in January, for officials to brief us, and for us to then consider matters further.

138. A number of members have already indicated that they have questions. I will start with my question. You mentioned the practice of other Governments, including Germany and Finland. Were you referring to regional Assemblies?

139. Mr Allister: No; to their national Assemblies. There may be experience that you could gain from them.

140. Across Europe, it is much more difficult to get information on how the regional Parliaments and Assemblies deal with things, with some countries having a very patchy relationship. Some of the German regions, however, are very active. For example, in Brussels, one of the biggest presences is that of the Bavarian representation, which is extremely active.

141. The information that I have for the Clerk relates to how each national Parliament reins in its own Executive.

142. The Chairperson: Regarding the other regional Administrations within the United Kingdom, is there good practice that can be followed?

143. Mr Allister: I have mentioned some practices from Scotland. Their European and External Relations Committee has a practice of making sure that it gets a copy of the Council of Ministers agenda, with annotations from its own Executive of the input that they have had to London onwards to Brussels. That is a very worthwhile exercise that any regional Assembly could follow. I would suggest it as something on which to model or draw from.

144. The Chairperson: Thank you very much. I omitted to tell you, Mr Allister, although I think that you were aware, that our session is being Hansarded today. I apologise for not making you aware of that sooner.

145. Mr Elliott: I have a couple of queries. The issue around the Scottish Committee is quite interesting. Does it see the Executive’s input before the regulations or legislation are made in Europe? That is where we have difficulty, because we are just told to implement legislation — what we really need is an input. Does the Scottish European and External Relations Committee have input before the legislation is made?

146. Your comment about devolution adding another layer and leaving us a bit more removed was interesting. I know that you have made a few indications as to how we can improve that. Regarding the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Europe, I assume that that is where our Executive can have a direct input into those proposals or legislation. Is that correct?

147. Mr Allister: Yes, there are two points there. Although I have no first-hand experience of the Scottish example, I have spoken with some Scottish MEPs about how it is perceived to operate. The key seems to be that, whatever is coming up at the Council of Ministers; be that legislative, a White Paper or a Green Paper proposal, to put it in our terms, or anything else, they have the agenda and they have knowledge of what their Executive’s input — if any — has been, through London, to the formulation of that proposal.

148. The key group in Brussels is not the politicians in many regards; it is an organisation called the United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the European Union. That group comprises the senior civil servants who reside and work in Brussels, and have daily contact with the Brussels machine, particularly the Commission. They do the groundwork on behalf of the British Government in respect of any proposal or negotiation. If you can shape their mind, that often shapes the Minister’s mind. On the fish quota talks recently, I sought them out and spoke to them in order to try to stiffen the UK Fisheries Minister’s position. I sometimes find that to be a much more beneficial exercise than anything else. Forming a relationship through your own Civil Service, through Whitehall, to the UK Permanent Representation, has to be vital.

149. I have digressed for a moment, but to return to the Scottish experience, if they get the Council of Ministers’ agenda, then they get the legislative proposals. They get everything that is coming up. That gives them an opportunity to shape legislation, so you must get that, and you must get it in a timely manner. That will tell you what your own Executive Ministers are thinking and doing, if anything, on those issues. That is important. I apologise; what was the second issue?

150. Mr Elliott: You indicated that devolution added an extra level of bureaucracy. What is the Northern Ireland Executive’s role?

151. Mr Allister: I will take you back to what the task force report said. It said that it has regular — but not systematic — contact with the Commission.

152. There is considerable opportunity for input to the Commission, although the Executive Office will probably require more staff, as it is running with four. The Commission has quite an open door, and its officials do not stand on ceremony with civil servants representing a region, rather than representing the national Governments, and they will be received and informed, and the Commission will talk to them about the issues. For example, the Commission announced recently a €200 billion package relating to the global economic downturn, which is supposed to focus mainly on two issues: simplifying regulation, which is something long promised and seldom delivered; and, on the structural fund side, focusing on reducing the co-financing rates for private-sector revenue-raising projects.

153. Being able to reduce the co-financial element in EU funding is important for Northern Ireland. One of the great hurdles and burdens Northern Ireland has faced in drawing down EU funding is due to that fact that, more often than not, it comes with a co-financing obligation. As a consequence of the British rebate, the British Government are always reticent to draw down funds, because the more they draw down, the less they get back in rebate. It has always been a constant battle when funds are affected with co-financing.

154. A proposal to reduce the co-financing element in structural funding would have the potential to benefit Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Executive Office should look into that issue fairly thoroughly to see how it can be tweaked, twisted and turned to best suit Northern Ireland.

155. I have no doubt that the Committee’s best door into the Commission is the Northern Ireland Executive Office — if it is doing its job right — and the office would bear further investment, if it were directed. However, what is its primary purpose? Is it just part of a fiefdom that is jealously guarded, or has it a wider ambit to serve Northern Ireland plc?

156. Mr Molloy: Thank you for that widespread briefing.

157. How can you, as an MEP — or the three MEPs — come together and brief the Committee on how you could build a relationship with the Assembly? What relationship do you have with the various Departments in the Assembly, particularly the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development?

158. Mr Allister: Mr Chairman, some parallels can be drawn with how matters work in other countries. I have already referred to the Finnish situation, which has a series of scrutiny Committees upon which its MEPs sit as ex-officio members, so that there is interplay between locally elected and internationally elected representatives — and feedback from the MEPs to those Committees. I am not for a moment suggesting that this Committee do that — I have quite enough Committees to attend. However, that is one end of the spectrum whereby MEPs are made ex-officio members of national Parliament Committees.

159. MEPs have some of the same problems as MLAs in shaping proposals at ground-floor level. However, undoubtedly, MEPs are in a better position as they serve on Committees that deal with issues that will arise, and, therefore, they have advance knowledge of the issues and the ready facility to seek out the relevant directorate general to find out the information.

160. If the Committee feels that there is value in having a more formal relationship with the MEPs, it lies within its prerogative to invite the MEPs to become more involved. By virtue of my presence this morning, I indicate that I am willing to help if I can. That is how it should be: all have the same common interest in serving this part of the United Kingdom as effectively as possible within the European Union and extracting the most for Northern Ireland. MEPs have their role in that, and I am sure that there is scope for improved relationships — formal or otherwise — between the Assembly and the MEPs, who are also parliamentarians and who seek to hold to account another executive. They share in a common cause. Relations between MEPs and local Departments should be most manifest through the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels. I have commented on the efficiency of working that way.

161. Mr Molloy: The Scottish Parliament has its own office in the European Union, and that provides an opportunity for MEPs to meet with Ministers of that Parliament, and for each to influence the other. Do you consider that the Assembly should have an office of its own in the European Union? Would that be of benefit to both the Assembly and MEPs?

162. Mr Allister: Mr Chairman, I am tempted to reply that one should learn to walk before running. However, that possibility might become relevant. It depends how far it is possible to cultivate the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels to operate in a manner of which the Assembly approves. If that office is doing the job for the Assembly, there is no need to duplicate it. However, if the Assembly thinks that it is neglectful or operating to protect its fiefdom rather than according to the benefit of NI plc, there might be a role for the Assembly in maintaining a separate presence. I do not know whether the Assembly is flush with funds — such an office would be a considerable drain.

163. Mr McElduff: Jim referred to serving people effectively and extracting the most for this society. Is there is a high level of co-operation among our three MEPs to the benefit of this society, and can he give examples where the three took a co-ordinated approach? Jim and I are both on the same side in relation to the Lisbon Treaty, but does he network with other MEPs from the island of Ireland, so that benefits for both the North and South of Ireland can be optimised?

164. Mr Allister: Mr Chairman, I network with all MEPs who are not apologists for terrorism and who are untainted democrats. That immediately excludes the party of the questioner, which continues to glorify and support acts of terrorism. In consequence, I neither seek nor provide co-operation with such a party. I do not have, nor do I seek, a relationship with a terrorist-friendly or terrorist-related party. I have no role in co-operating with a party that acts under the aegis of a wicked, evil, illegal army council, and which glorifies terrorism in all its ways.

165. I do not apologise for taking that stand, which is a stand that others in the room used to take, and have long since abandoned.

166. Mr Molloy: It would be useful if Mr Allister discussed European issues, rather than local constitutional issues.

167. The Chairperson: To be fair, a question was posed and has now been answered. I thank Mr Allister for his contribution. You indicated that you will provide additional information to the Department. We welcome that and we will, perhaps, have a continuing role in the future.

168. Mr Allister: Thank you for the opportunity to attend the Committee; it was a pleasure to appear before you and those members of the Committee who are untainted democrats.

169. Mr McElduff: We will see what happens with the democratic process in June.

170. The Chairperson: On behalf of the Committee, I now welcome Jim Nicholson MEP. Good morning, Mr Nicholson, you are very welcome.

171. Mr Jim Nicholson MEP: Good morning, Mr Chairman.

172. The Chairperson: The Committee is interested in your views on how the Assembly can work better, and achieve more, with the European Union.

173. This process is part of an OFMDFM inquiry, and we will hopefully use it to produce a report with recommendations. On that basis, today’s session is being recorded by Hansard. We expect the session to last approximately 40 minutes, which will include a brief overview or statement, if you wish to make one, and questions from Committee members.

174. Mr Nicholson: I am happy to go straight to questions.

175. The Chairperson: OK. I am happy with that.

176. Mr Shannon: It is nice to see you at the Committee, Jim. Currently, one of the great issues for the fishing industry in Northern Ireland is quotas, which EU officials will discuss with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and representatives from Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom on this day next week.

177. I am not trying to catch anybody out, so I will ask a constructive question. What has the relationship has been like between you and the fishing industry? How can we influence DEFRA? Currently, we are faced with draconian cuts for the fishing industry in relation to days-at-sea quotas; the only exception being haddock. The cod-compensation scheme is —

178. The Chairperson: Please ask a question, Jim.

179. Mr Shannon: We are very lucky — we did not receive a presentation, so I suspect that we have an extra 10 or 15 minutes to ask questions.

180. The Chairperson: I do not want one question to take up that entire time.

181. Mr Shannon: This is an important issue. An MEP is here today, and this is the chance to ask for his help and evaluate how the situation can be improved for our fishing industry. I am talking about my bread and butter, so I am not going to apologise for asking a question.

182. Mr Shannon: On behalf of the fishing industry, how can we improve our influence and ensure that that industry does not face those draconian cuts on this day next week?

183. We were also told that the Scottish Parliament scrutinises the agenda of the Council of Ministers. Do you have any thoughts about how that could be done by the Assembly? Chairman, those are my questions, and I respect your graciousness for letting me have the opportunity to ask them.

184. The Chairperson: Thank you very much. As it is the season of goodwill, I could hardly fail.

185. Mr Nicholson: That is one of the great long-running problems that we have had since I was first elected to the European Parliament in 1989. Each year, normally the week before Christmas, taxes and quotas for the next 12 months are set for fishermen. There has been an ongoing argument between the scientists on one hand and the fishermen on the other regarding the numbers of fish that are available to catch in the sea.

186. Our fishermen have had to suffer the closure of box 7A in the Irish Sea — from which they get most of their catches — for the longest period of time. I must say that DEFRA does not seem to be overly concerned about the future of our fishing industry, so it is Brussels that must be influenced. That has been a long-running campaign.

187. For years, the European Parliament Fisheries Committee and I have fought for better deals. Some members of the Committee will know who the leaders of our fishermen are. Dick James, from Portavogie, and Alan McCulla, from Kilkeel, have visited the Parliament as part of delegations. We have set up a mechanism in which they have an input from a regional point of view. You are right to raise the issue, because the quotas that will be announced next week will probably be some of the worst in memory. I have been aggravated about that for a long time.

188. It seems that the fisheries directorate in Brussels and the scientists always put forward the worse-case scenario for the fishermen and then give them a little at the end of the negotiations to keep them happy. That has aggravated me for a long time.

189. It is the duty of the Assembly to have better relations with Brussels. The Scottish Parliament was mentioned, and maybe we could discuss how the Scots deal with Europe later. To pull no punches, the Scots and the Welsh deal with Europe much better than we do — we have to learn how they use their influence in Brussels. We use our influence to the best of our ability through the European Parliament Committee on Fisheries, of which I was a member for 17 years. Although I am no longer on that Committee, I can still influence Commissioner Joe Borg.

190. Fishermen have got a raw deal from Brussels for a long time, or at least they believe that they have. Like every other part of society, they have suffered from high fuel prices and the effects of the credit crunch, which is bad coming up to Christmas. In the long term, the Assembly, this Committee, the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and others with responsibility must go to Brussels and meet the officials from the fisheries directorate who make the recommendations. That will be an uphill battle, but, as MEPs, we encourage local representatives to do it and echo what we have been saying for years, because it is a question of negotiation. I hope that the Northern Ireland representatives are able to get a better deal than we anticipate. I can put the situation is no stronger terms than that.

191. This is not the first time we have been in this terrible position — we seem to be in it at this time every year. I have pleaded with the fisheries directorate in Brussels, and, at one stage, it looked as though there would be some change — I do not understand why tax and quotas have to be set a week before Christmas, instead of in the summer, the spring or the autumn. On one occasion, we were stuck in Brussels and did not know whether we would get a flight home for Christmas, because negotiations went down to the wire — that is the way those things go when an agreement cannot be reached. It was 3.00 am or 4.00 am on Christmas Eve, the fishermen were all present, and no one knew whether they would get home for Christmas. Although that is an unsatisfactory way to do business, the Europeans approach it like the old saying in Northern Ireland: “That is the way we have always done it, so we will stick to it." The scientists are the bugbear of the whole process.

192. Mr Shannon: Does Brussels or DEFRA have the biggest influence? Where should we focus our attention?

193. Mr Nicholson: We must focus on both. The decisions are made by Brussels, but the Minister with responsibility from Whitehall is the negotiator at the table, and is flanked by the respective Ministers with responsibility from Scotland and Northern Ireland — I suspect that those Ministers will have an input in the negotiations. When Brid Rodgers was Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, she had an input in the decision-making process. Much of the negotiations are not done around the table; they are done in little rooms — it is a deal-making exercise. That is a terrible situation, and I do not know why our fishermen should be in it.

194. Therefore, Jim, we have to focus on both Brussels and DEFRA. You must make your argument to the Minister in London, because if he or she is not making the argument for you during the negotiations, you do not have much chance of winning.

195. However, at the end of the day, another argument to be made is that you should go directly to Brussels to make your point directly to the Commissioner and to the Commission’s officials.

196. Mr Molloy: Mr Nicholson, thank you for your presentation. In my limited experience of European funding, I found that when I managed to get to talk to the Commissioner, it was not as bad as talking to the messengers. Therefore, going directly to the Commissioner is probably the best option.

197. The question of how Scotland deals with the issue was raised. Would there be any benefit in the Assembly having an office in the European Parliament to facilitate direct contact with the MEPs and others? How can MEPs best relate to, and tie in with, the Assembly and the Committee? Could the three MEPs adopt a joint approach and form part of the briefing process in the Assembly?

198. Mr Nicholson: You have opened up a can of worms by asking that question.

199. Mr Molloy: I would not want to do that.

200. Mr Nicholson: You raised what is probably the crunch issue as far as the Northern Ireland Executive Office is concerned. To some extent, you are asking whether that office is doing its job. You also asked whether the Northern Ireland Assembly requires direct representation. It would be absolutely ridiculous for both the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly to have offices in Brussels. That is an odd suggestion, and you are missing the mark, if I may say so.

201. Surely the Committee should be asking the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which has responsibility for European affairs in the Assembly, what is the remit of the Northern Ireland Executive Office. What are that office’s responsibilities, to whom is it responsible and should the Committee not have a better input?

202. You must consider the origins of the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels. It was established many years ago when there was neither an Executive nor an Assembly. It started as a focus for raising awareness of Northern Ireland in Brussels, and councils and business were involved. Subsequently, however, it gravitated to its current status of Northern Ireland Executive Office under the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The office is staffed by civil servants and it, and they, are only as good as the remit that they are given to carry out their functions.

203. If Northern Ireland were to open a second office in Brussels, it would be overkill, and people would laugh at us. The Committee should sit down with those with the relevant responsibility in Northern Ireland. The Speaker raised with me the possibility of Assembly representation in Brussels when the President of the European Parliament was here, and I have given the matter some thought.

204. The Northern Ireland Executive Office will soon have to relocate, and, if extra resources were available, it would be sensible to strengthen its presence. Perhaps the Assembly could have a part of that new office in which an individual could work to the Assembly and to the Committee.

205. I do not want to be critical of you, Mr Chairman, or of the Committee, but you have been up and running for some time now, and you have visited Brussels only once, and we hardly ever see an Executive Minister. I am simply trying to be constructive; I am not being destructive, because I am criticising everyone.

206. The Committee must go back to basics: start at home by asking whether the Northern Ireland Executive Office is properly directed at present to enable it to fulfil its functions and deliver everything that it can for Northern Ireland. There are two jobs to be done, one of which is the difficult job of keeping track of all the various directives that are being introduced. During the week, Tom Elliott’s office phoned me because the fishermen in Fermanagh are experiencing problems with eels. I am sorry, but Brussels dealt with that issue three years ago, and whatever decision was made then stands.

207. If something has happened to affect Northern Ireland that was not picked up on at the time, the decision has already been made — the horse is out of the box and away.

208. The Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels should be dealing with newly emerging directives. For instance, an important Council of Europe meeting has just taken place to deal with matters such as climate change and European carbon footprints. Did Northern Ireland have an input to those discussions? Was the Assembly’s Minister of the Environment there to represent our interests? Members have demanded that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development be there to represent the fishermen, but the Minister of the Environment should also be at the table representing Northern Ireland on such big issues.

209. Many things are happening in Europe, and the Executive office’s job is to identify problems that might arise down the road for Northern Ireland. Members are aware of the problems that farmers encountered as a result of the nitrates directive, but although that directive is being implemented now, it went through Brussels in the early 1990s. That is the problem that we face; people seek to resolve problems after the damage has been done. We must be in there at the start, formulating policy and assessing how Northern Ireland will be affected, and that is why there must be co-operation between the Executive’s office and the UK’s permanent representatives, other Governments and, first and foremost, with Northern Ireland MEPs. Frankly — and I am sorry to say it — the relationship between the Assembly and Northern Ireland MEPs is worse now than it was under direct rule.

210. The Chairperson: That was a robust contribution.

211. Mr Nicholson: I am not being robust at all; I am merely stating the facts.

212. The Chairperson: You are being thought provoking.

213. Mr Nicholson: The question allowed me to be so.

214. Mr Elliott: I thank Jim for the demoralising message — we are not doing anything right.

215. Mr Spratt: The people in your office should have known better than to ring him.

216. Mr Elliott: We will deal with that another time. Jim has been dealing with the matter that I was going to raise, concerning how we can influence EU legislation and regulations before they are implemented. That is our difficulty.

217. Moreover, Northern Ireland is a regional body; it is not a member state. Somebody asked whether Northern Ireland would be better to deal directly with Europe or through the UK, and you said that we should do both. Is doing that through the Northern Ireland Executive the best way, or is there another way? You said that Ministers are seldom there.

218. Mr Nicholson: It would be better to say that they are not there often enough.

219. Mr Elliott: Are you suggesting that there is another way — apart from at Executive level — to interact with Europe? Should the Assembly have a Committee for Europe, or is there a better mechanism that we might use? In addition, how could support for the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels be bolstered?

220. Mr Nicholson: It could always do with more staff. Although the number of staff that we have and what they are expected to cover cannot match the arrangements in the Scottish office, we should be on a par with the Welsh office. We will never be able to match what the Bavarians do, because we are not rich enough — we do not have Mercedes and BMWs. Nevertheless, you are right.

221. I am told that more than 70% of the legislation that the Assembly deals with originates in Brussels. Therefore, the Assembly must be in there attempting to influence legislation; otherwise, by the time it reaches the Assembly, debating and approving it is the only thing left to do. Furthermore, on its way here, legislation has probably gone through Whitehall.

222. Much of European legislation is concerned with implementation. Often, various member states implement the same directive differently. Some time ago, I dealt with a case involving the owner of a quarry in Newry who was being affected by the implementation of the waste oil directive. The man also owned a quarry in Dundalk. In Northern Ireland, he was told that the directive meant that, rather than heating up virgin oil for use in tarmacadam, he was not allowed to use waste oil. However, in the Republic, under the identically worded directive, he was allowed to use it. That is crazy, and such matters make the EU look bad.

223. Someone said earlier that when one goes to Europe and meets people, one finds an open door; one finds that people are prepared to talk, listen and respond. Members of the Assembly must set their own level, but that cannot be done from Belfast. It is similar to the problem that I have if I want to an Executive Minister; they always seem to want to meet me on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. However, my job is in Brussels, and I am normally in Brussels on those days. Therein lies the difficulty.

224. Members must get out there and realise the problems that others are encountering, because we are not the only people with problems. People from the other member states have the same attitudes and the same problems in dealing with Brussels; perhaps even more so than us on occasion.

225. The Assembly is a regionally elected body, which represents the people of Northern Ireland and covers a wide variety of policy and other areas. Brussels makes decisions, which the Assembly must implement, and it would be sensible for the Assembly to be there at the earliest possible juncture, picking up the directives when they are released by the Commission. Furthermore, those directives come from the Commission and are sent to the Parliament, which, in many areas, has the power of co-decision. Therefore, it would be sensible for the Assembly to be there and attempt to influence those directives, at that stage.

226. For example, I am currently working as a shadow rapporteur on a report for the regional affairs committee. That committee is trying to remove rural development from DARD, and return it to the area of regional policy, where it used to reside in the early 1990s. During Ray McSharry’s time, rural development became the second pillar in Europe, allowing the rural community to be supported. The only problem with that policy was that not enough money was set aside to create any tangible effect. I am trying to fight that policy at the moment, at that level.

227. The Assembly also needs to take such action and attempt to influence such decisions at an early stage. The Committee will know from working in the Assembly that if a decision is made, it is very difficult to change that decision, unless a glaring mistake was made.

228. The creation of policy in Europe involves a very long process. The REACH directive — and many of the other directives — may have been in discussion for anything up to three to four years. Therefore, those decisions are not reached quickly and the Assembly has plenty of time — at the early point of those discussions — to make your view known and to try to change those decisions if necessary.

229. Furthermore, there must be a better working co-operation among the Assembly, the Executive and the MEPs because, at the moment, we are not joined up. I recently had a meeting with the First Minister and deputy First Minister and I recommended that they — with their responsibility for Europe — should brief MEPs at least twice a year on the priorities of the Executive. I am also prepared meet with any other statutory Committee and deal with them. After all, the Assembly is elected by the same people who elected me, and we are all responsible to the same electorate. We are all trying to deliver the best that we can for that electorate, and there is not much point in our trying to compete with each other — we must co-operate.

230. Mr Moutray: I thank Mr Nicholson for attending today. To what capacity should Members of the Assembly and staff be raised in respect of European issues?

231. Mr Nicholson: I have always believed that we are under-represented in Europe when compared to other regions. For example, many civil servants have travelled to Europe from the Republic of Ireland, and are now working for the European Commission. We have a dearth of such representation, with the exception of Ronnie Hall who is with the Directorate General for Regional Affairs. We have a number of other people working in the EU, but he is the most senior person from here. There were others in the past, but they have retired and left.

232. Young civil servants must be encouraged to go to Brussels to learn the system and to see how it works and operates. Hopefully, many of them will be encouraged to come back. However, they will not move to Brussels and uproot their families for three or four years, only to come back to find that their colleagues in the Department have been promoted and are ahead of them. They must be given incentives to encourage them to go to Brussels.

233. There are other ways, such as through UKRep. I am not sure whether there is anyone from Northern Ireland in UKRep at present. There may be one person. UKRep does not link up with us. That has been a difficulty for MEPs because, sometimes, UKRep’s priority is not Northern Ireland’s priority. We have differences with UKRep on some matters. The Northern Ireland Executive’s office also has that problem because UKRep will always be the supreme body that represents the United Kingdom in Brussels and will, certainly, continue to be.

234. Those avenues must be considered in order to encourage more people. It is quite a challenge for a young person who, perhaps, has a young family, to uproot them to Brussels. If they want to make a career there, that is different. Several people have done so successfully. However, they may want to return to Northern Ireland. Work must be done on that. More encouragement must be given. I use the word “encouragement", but, perhaps, “incentives" is better.

235. Mr Moutray: What is UKRep?

236. Mr Nicholson: It is the United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the European Union. Every Government has permanent representation in Brussels to deal with all the EU directives as they go through the co-decision process. UKRep is a massive body in Brussels. It will never allow the Scots, the Welsh or the Northern Irish to undermine its power. I have always said that we must work with them; however, we must prioritise our own concerns. Problems have arisen in agriculture and, at times, in regional development. On many other issues, however, there is no problem.

237. Mr Spratt: Thank you, Jim, for briefing the Committee. As regards 2009’s legislation and work programme, is any issue that might be important to Northern Ireland hurtling down the track?

238. Mr Nicholson: Do you mean a financial issue where more funding could be identified for Northern Ireland?

239. Mr Spratt: Certainly, or any other important issue.

240. Mr Nicholson: As far as finance is concerned, the cake is settled until 2013. We are aware of how much funding Northern Ireland will get from regional and structural funds. We are aware of how much we will get from the peace and reconciliation fund.

241. New ideas are always coming forward. One difficulty that we have — which we must accept, although it is not easy — is the fact that, to a large extent, Brussels’ eyes no longer look towards Northern Ireland. As far as Brussels is concerned, Northern Ireland is a done deal; it can forget about us. Its eyes look eastwards to the new member states. Regional funding is orientated towards eastern Europe.

242. In 1989, when I was elected to the European Parliament, there were 12 member states. There are now 27, soon to be 28. That is a big change. In fact, it is far too large, unwieldy and difficult to handle. One matter that is emerging, which they have not quite identified and have not come to grips with — and which we should try to influence — is the funding that will be available to Northern Ireland after 2013. Believe it or not, consideration must be given to that now.

243. In 2010, after the new Parliament and Commission have been returned, they will start to discuss structural funds; agricultural reform — Northern Ireland has just had an agricultural health check; future support for agriculture; milk quotas; and other such matters. At the end of 2010 and in early 2011, we will start to discuss those matters so that they can be dealt with by 2013. Therefore, Northern Ireland must consider them now. We need to consider from where we will get support if, say, peace funding does not continue.

244. There will be many people and projects out there without funding. I am sorry to have to say it, but you, as local politicians, will have to try to find alternatives for that funding. We need to identify areas where funding can continue.

245. Territorial cohesion is an interesting area that I have identified, and it could be useful if we can cover more than simply eastern Europe. As members will know, the cohesion fund was set up for countries such as the Republic, Spain, Portugal and Greece. Indeed, when people drove on the roads down South, they criticised me and my MEP colleagues for not getting more money for roads in Northern Ireland. If people go to Spain or Portugal on their holidays, they can also see the big highways that have been built there. However, the truth was that the money for roads in the Republic, Spain and Portugal were 85% funded by Brussels through the cohesion fund, and anyone knows that if 85% of a dual carriageway can be funded, the other 15% can always be found. Therefore, from that point of view, I feel that territorial cohesion could be introduced in the border regions, and it would be helpful if we could get it identified that we could ultimately apply for it. It will take a certain amount of work, but I am flagging that up as an area where we could look for extra funding.

246. Mr McElduff: Thank you. I welcome the frankness of your approach. Will you tell us about your experience of the Executive office in Brussels? Has it been a good experience? Is it proactive, or do you have to seek it out? Is there a two-way engagement? What type of communication process do you undertake back home to communicate to communities and people about the complications of the European process?

247. Mr Nicholson: The Executive office has improved substantially over the years. However, it is only as good as the remit that it is given to deliver. Therefore, I do not know what responsibility it has, but, in the past, it was very much under the diktat of DFP. I am sure, as Assembly Members, you already know that the Department of Finance likes to try to control everything — it does not matter where you are or what organisation you are in. I do not have to seek its officials out. I have their telephone numbers and I can contact them, but I do not meet them every week, because that would be ridiculous. We meet as and when it is necessary, and I do not have any complaints about the Executive office and its contact with us.

248. The Executive office is excellent on the agriculture side, and it is also good in other areas. However, it is under-resourced, and extra money should be made available to it. If there are more people available, it will be more productive. The Executive office also has to facilitate organisations that come to Brussels. Many rural community and council delegations have come out from Northern Ireland, and a Northern Ireland Local Government Association delegation also came out. When new folk or Ministers come out, the office has to arrange all that. No one should underestimate the amount of work that it does, and it is working in a totally different political environment to the one in which we work. Therefore, it is a more open, accessible environment. However, I could be critical of the Executive, but it would be unfair of me to do so, because the Executive could do more with the resources that they have available. We could do more, and you could probably do more. We could all do more, and we could probably do things better than we do now. However, that normally comes with more information.

249. Locally, it is the most difficult thing in the world to get publicity for Europe. A couple of weeks ago, a reporter from the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ was in Brussels, and I asked him how we could get more publicity for Europe through the newspaper.

250. I recently got a lot of publicity in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ because I highlighted the problems that were being faced by beekeepers. Believe me, that is a very serious problem. However, it is very difficult to get publicity about climate change or environmental matters, for example. It is not the press’s fault, because they put in the paper what the people want to read, or what they interpret that the people want to read.

251. The best form of communication is through the local papers, such as the ‘Ulster Gazette’ or the ‘Portadown Times’. It is not always easy to get into them either, but I always find that reporters on local papers print a lot of information when they go back. Bringing a lot of reporters from many different areas out to Brussels is one of the things that we do well. Unfortunately, we do not get a great many people from the press and other media in Northern Ireland. One guy came out from the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ recently, but that is something that we could do a little bit better.

252. Eddie McVeigh, the head of the European Commission office in Belfast, brought a group of agriculture journalists to Brussels 10 or 12 months ago. They had a tremendous and very informative trip, and covered a great many areas. The truth is that all politicians are looking for political coverage. We are in competition with you, and you are in competition with us, and we are all in competition with Ministers. Everyone is in competition with one another, but there is only so much political coverage that a paper can provide. Unfortunately, Europe falls off the ledge, and you guys seem to get a better deal than we get.

253. Jim Allister gets quite a lot of coverage, but he does so because he criticises the DUP. He does not get it on European issues. I would probably appear on the front page if I criticised Danny Kennedy, Tom Elliott or Reg Empey. However, that does not represent constructive politics, nor does it deliver anything. I will not go down that road; I will stick to the constructive issues. I will try to promote Northern Ireland in Europe and do my best to get that message across locally. It is difficult; I do not pretend otherwise. We could go into every area, but there are 17 constituencies to cover in the whole of Northern Ireland. It is not easy being everywhere, doing one’s job in Europe and meeting constituents. It is a full-time job.

254. The Chairperson: OK. It is a huge relief that you are not going to have a go at us.

255. Mr Nicholson: Absolutely not.

256. The Chairperson: It has been a very good session. Are there any further questions?

257. Mr Molloy: Can we get any more from the Barroso task force? When we were in Brussels, Ronnie Hall told us that a lot more funding was available. We were looking at Peace II and agriculture funds, but there are many other funding streams from which we are not drawing. How do we go about that?

258. Mr Nicholson: We have had Peace I, II and III. That funding was achieved by me, John Hume and Dr Paisley when we went into Jacques Delors’s office after the ceasefires. He asked us how he could help, and we told him not to get involved in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, but that there were many projects that could assist areas of deprivation. That was the beginning of the peace funds, from which Northern Ireland has received more than £2 billion, over and above any other moneys.

259. The Barroso task force was a sham, in my opinion, because it did not deliver one extra euro. It has, perhaps, allowed Departments to use the money in a better way in the future. From that point of view, it is good. We had no input into the task force. I had one meeting with Commissioner Hübner in Belfast, but my views were not listened to. We missed a massive opportunity; we should have gone to Europe and asked for a substantial package to rebuild infrastructure and create better roads and sewerage systems, which are under pressure.

260. I think that that was needed; it should have been done, but a stroke was missed. We were not consulted. The three MEPs at the time had their own personal appointees involved in the formulation of the Peace I programme; on this occasion, we were not consulted or asked, and we were not listened to. From that point of view, I cannot be responsible. The task force does not provide one extra euro; it may redistribute the money of Departments better, but I have to ask why the Departments require that. If the Departments had been doing their job through the years, they should have figured that out themselves.

261. Mr Spratt: I attended a reception, at which I was impressed by the fairly extensive networking of some of the universities in the South. They had people permanently based in Europe, networking particularly on research and development programmes, and they were getting some substantial funding. I came back and mentioned it to the Committee for Employment and Learning, of which I was a member at the time. Have you any ideas on how we could further encourage that? There is an area, particularly in research and development, which could be tapped into.

262. Mr Nicholson: I totally agree with you 100%. Research and development is one area in which our universities do very well. They are not lagging behind; they have mastered that a long time ago. Even some of the larger companies are also very good.

263. I always say that the farmers were the first people to recognise how important Europe was; the Bureau de l’Agriculture Britannique was established to represent farmers in Brussels, and it does an excellent job. Then there are industries such as Harland and Wolff, and Bombardier. When Bombardier is having problems, it comes to Europe, because research and development is very important to it. That is an area in which we can gain tremendously from the new framework directive. We need to be more proactive on that. You are right to state that we must look at those other areas of funding and other areas in which we gain support from Europe, and where Europe is changing its attitudes away from the begging-bowl mentality — I may be using the wrong phrase — but we do not want that mentality. We want to hold our heads high.

264. I genuinely believe that we from Northern Ireland have a lot to offer the rest of Europe. We have come through tremendous difficulties and survived. That expertise that we have developed in building up from the bottom is something that Europe needs very badly. Our councils and NGOs can bring their ideas into the new emerging member states of Europe, and even into areas outside of the 27 member states — some of them are already doing it, and doing a tremendous job. We should do more in that area to give something back and not always be looking for something. That is also a responsibility. I agree that research and development is an area in which we can do more, and do it better.

265. The Chairperson: Thank you very much; your comments have been very useful.

266. Mr Nicholson: I hope that I was not too frank. I thought it better just to answer the questions that the Committee wanted to ask me, rather than giving the Committee a lot of what I think it may want to hear.

267. The Chairperson: Thank you very much indeed. Those of us who have known you for a long time knew what to expect, and you did not disappoint. If there is any other information that you wish to provide as part of the Committee’s inquiry, we would be happy to receive that. Thank you for your attendance today.

268. Mr Nicholson: I look forward to your next visit to Brussels, Mr Chairman; I look forward to many of them, and am quite happy to come here and meet you anytime, but you have got to spend a few pounds and keep coming out there.

7 January 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Ms Jane Morrice
Mr Michael Smyth

European Economic and Social Committee

269. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): I welcome Jane Morrice and Michael Smyth from the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). For the purposes of our review and report into EU issues, this session is being recorded by Hansard. After your opening remarks, we hope that you will be able to take questions.

270. Ms Jane Morrice (European Economic and Social Committee): Thank you very much, Chairperson. I wish you all a happy new year. We are delighted to be here and to see quite a few familiar faces. As members of the European Economic and Social Committee, we welcome the opportunity to give our views on how the Assembly can better engage with the European Union.

271. I have always had an interest in European affairs. That interest was never dented during my time as a journalist in Brussels and Belfast, as head of the European Commission Office in Belfast, and even in politics here. I suppose that aids me in my role on the European Economic and Social Committee. At the start, we thought that it will be useful to explain how the EESC works. In simple terms, it is made up of 340 members from 27 countries. We work in 23 different languages, so it is quite an onerous task.

272. The Treaty of Rome obliges the European Commission to consult the EESC in advance on approximately 80% of legislation that goes through the EU, and to advise us about the remaining 20%. However, it is not obliged to take our views on board. That being said, because of the wide range of interests and experiences of EESC members — and because of the high quality of opinions that come from it — the European Commission usually takes our views on board.

273. The EESC is divided into three groups: Group I is Employers; Group II is Workers; and Group III is Other Interests. Mike and I are members of Group III. The EESC is also divided into sections. I am on the Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society Unit (TEN), and the Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship Unit (SOC). Mike is on the Single Market, Production and Consumption Unit (INT), and the Economic and Monetary Union and Economic and Social Cohesion Unit (ECO). We are well divided among the issues. I was also on the communications group of the EESC, which promotes awareness of EU affairs.

274. We are appointed by the UK Minister of State for Europe, who was Geoff Hoon at the time, and our appointments are approved by the Council of Ministers. We act as independent experts who scrutinise the legislation and we are appointed for an initial four-year term. Ultimately, we are accountable to the Minister of State for Europe, and our mandate is to promote the best interests of Northern Ireland in Europe.

275. Members of the Committee have my detailed written submission, so I will not go into too much detail; I will simply highlight a number of important points that I believe should be priorities. The Assembly must find a way to exert more influence on European Union affairs so that Northern Ireland is able to gain greater benefit from EU policies, by which I mean beyond the structural funds, because we know what is happening in that regard. It is just as important to allow the European Union to benefit from the experience of Northern Ireland. That is something that we should promote. Key to that is for Assembly Members, civil servants and civic society in general to get better acquainted with how the European Union works. That is vital.

276. Contacts and networks should be built up in Brussels and other regions throughout the EU. A strategic approach should be adopted that uses the resources that are already available, which are the Executive Office in Brussels, the European Commission Office in Belfast, the MEPs, the Committee of the Regions and the members of the EESC.

277. My submission argues that the focal point should be a committee for European affairs. That would help to build up the body of expertise, which is vital. That committee should deal with its counterparts in the UK and Ireland, and other regions of the European Union — particularly Spain, Mediterranean islands such as Malta and Cyprus, Scandinavian countries and Eastern Europe — to build up a body of contacts. The committee should also make use of valuable local resources that are available in the social partners — in business, trade unions and the voluntary sector here, which have incredibly valuable experiences of dealing with EU policies and programmes. Those resources should be exploited — in the best meaning of the word — to the full.

278. Most important of all is the political will to engage with the European Union. As my submission states, engagement with the EU need not compromise party political positions on Europe. Last year, at a conference organised by the EESC in Belfast, the then First Minister, Ian Paisley, and deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, proved that to be the case when they spoke so highly of the European Union’s role in the peace process.

279. I want to put on my record my thanks for the incredible support that we received from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, the European Commission Office in Belfast and from social partners here for that highly successful conference. I gave the Committee the report of the conference, which was approved by the EESC at a plenary session. I am happy to answer questions on task force issues, and so forth.

280. Mr Michael Smyth (European Economic and Social Committee): I offer the compliments of the season to you all.

281. I was conscious not to go over the same ground as Jane. For members who do not know me, I have had an interest in Europe for most of my adult life — from the time that I studied in Dublin for a degree in French and political economy. For the first two years, my tutor was Garret Fitzgerald — so you can blame him for my interest — and he was an expert on Europe before he became a Minister.

282. The Chairperson: We already blame him for other things.

283. Mr Smyth: To ordinary people, Europe and the EU can seem remote at times, and, for elected representatives, they can be inaccessible. Jane has done her best to explain the role of the European Economic and Social Committee, which is a complex organisation. If it helps the Committee, I have brought with me a copy of the book and CD celebrating our fiftieth anniversary. The CD is particularly good, and I will leave it with you in case you ever need to dip into it to find out exactly what we do.

284. Mr Shannon: Is there any 1960s music on it?

285. Mr Smyth: There is good music on it, yes, such as ‘Ode to Joy’.

286. Mr Shannon: That is not the song that I was thinking about.

287. Mr Smyth: I have three or four points to put to the Committee by way of introduction and general comment. There is increasing recognition, particularly in Europe, of the role that it has played in Northern Ireland’s development since the early 1970s, whether through the community support frameworks and structural funds or the Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation (SSPPR). I note that Mr Molloy is present today; under sub-programme 6 of the SSPPR, he took part in what was probably one of the best local strategy partnerships. Peace II and Peace III funding in all their incarnations, and latterly INTERREG, have also played a role. The cumulative effect is that Europe has left a positive mark on Northern Ireland, not least on its infrastructure.

288. In considering the wider politics, there seems to be a constant tension in Europe between the so-called Anglo-Saxon model and the European social model. As part of the UK delegation, we are constantly getting ribbed, or jibed at, because of the Anglo-Saxon model. The current credit crunch means that the Anglo-Saxon model is held in pretty low esteem around Europe. In Northern Ireland, we embrace both models: we are part of the UK and, therefore, part of the Anglo-Saxon model by default, but we have several fine examples of the European social model in practice, not least the local strategy partnerships, which have survived a difficult birth and a difficult period of operation. Northern Ireland has LEADER+ groups and INTERREG groups, and the Special EU Programmes body (SEUPB) itself is constituted along the lines of the European social model, which has also influenced the equality institutions in Northern Ireland. Therefore, we have the best of both worlds. We can look to Europe and embrace many aspects of Europe. We can also look west and say to the United States that we are part of the Anglo-Saxon world, that we are part of Europe, that we speak English, and so on. To date, that has not been leveraged enough into our development.

289. Northern Ireland’s engagement with Europe has been passive hitherto. I do not know whether the Committee agrees with that, but we will soon find out. Since the early 1970s, we have been like a gosling in the nest with our mouths open. Europe has funnelled money to us through central Government, and we have not had to seek funding and partnership in Europe.

290. We need to become much more active in our engagement with Europe — if that is what we want to do. Indeed, that has long been the case. That engagement could involve seeking funding and partnerships. There are enormous opportunities for Northern Ireland to secure funding from Europe. Engagement with Europe could also involve benefiting from, and contributing to, good practice. Most social and economic problems in Northern Ireland are not unique to Northern Ireland. Solutions to those problems exist in other parts of Europe, and we need to learn from those.

291. The Barroso task force report is unique in that it sets out a checklist for all public-policy organisations here. The report sets out: what we do; what the Programme for Government does; the nine public-policy areas; all the devolved policy areas; Europe’s position on all of those; and what we need to do if we want to prosper and benefit from European engagement. Therefore, the report is a checklist that we can use to measure the progress of our engagement with Europe, if that is what we choose to do.

292. I think that Jane and I agree that there has never been a better time for Northern Ireland to engage in Europe — our stock and capital in Europe has never been higher. People in Brussels see us as a success story, and they want to continue to help us.

293. The Chairperson: I thank you both very much for your concise presentations. Will the fact that we now have devolution redefine your role as members of the European Economic and Social Committee? How do you envisage working in conjunction with the devolved Administration here?

294. Ms Morrice: Devolution will undoubtedly change our role. We now have access to the Assembly, and you have access to us and the information that we receive about European legislation. We can provide the Assembly with information that will enable Members to increase their knowledge of European affairs.

295. Mr Smyth: My written submission indicates that we have been slightly frustrated by the lack of any mechanism for us to have input to the Assembly. We would welcome such a mechanism. Yesterday, at a meeting of the INT section, a paper was produced that contained an opinion on the new Small Business Act for Europe. That Act will affect 98% of businesses in Northern Ireland. The opinion was that the Act will certainly lead to a more business-friendly final communication from Brussels. The Commission was present at the meeting yesterday.

296. It would be very useful if we could communicate those kinds of impending developments. It will be a few months before those start to feed into our machinery, but we could give advanced notice of major policy changes that affect the economy or civil society.

297. We are struggling, and, until now, the most that we have been able to do is to write newspaper articles and speak at the few conferences that have been organised. Therefore, if this Committee could give us some sort of opening or platform that would allow us to feed into scrutiny or policymaking, we would be happy to do so.

298. The Chairperson: Are all 340 members of your committee unelected?

299. Mr Smyth: Yes.

300. The Chairperson: So, is there separation between social and economic partners and elected representatives?

301. Ms Morrice: Yes, the elected representatives are in the European Parliament and on the Committee of the Regions, which includes councillors. The European Economic and Social Committee is a different animal, because its members are not elected. They are experts from various areas, employer and employee representatives and other interest representatives, such as those from the voluntary sector.

302. The Chairperson: Is there a history of tension between the two bodies?

303. Mr Smyth: Yes, but I would call them healthy tensions; not least when they are budgetary tensions. The Parliament considers itself to be the senior service; we are junior to it, and there is no point denying that.

304. Ms Morrice: The European Economic and Social Committee complements the European Parliament, and that is a valuable relationship. The Treaty of Rome envisaged the EESC giving advice and consultation — civic-society representation outside politics.

305. Mr Shannon: It is nice to see you again. Thank you for coming along and for your presentation. The thrust of what Jane said at the beginning and what Mike said later is about how to make the system more effective and how we should respond quicker to the impending legislative changes for small businesses.

306. Should each Department have a European champion in order to strengthen European liaison? In addition, how could you develop your relationship with the three MEPs in order to keep the Assembly abreast of legislative changes that might greatly affect businesses in the Province? Would appointing European champions be a satisfactory way for each Department to proceed, and how do you envisage such people working through the office in Europe? Should they, or civil servants, be based in that office? Furthermore, are you satisfied with how the Barroso task force has developed and with its relationship with the Executive?

307. Mr Smyth: It would be prudent for each Department to appoint someone to liaise with Europe. When the Small Business Act for Europe comes into force, responsibility will pass to the relevant Departments to develop the legislation required to enact it here. Being forewarned that that is coming and that there will be significant innovations and changes to policy can only help implementation by the Assembly and the Civil Service. Does each Department not have EU liaison officer anyway?

308. Mr Shannon: I am not sure whether they all do. If they do, how effective are they, and, if they are not effective, how can we make them more so? Any Department that does not have an EU liaison officer should have one.

309. Mr Smyth: If I may digress for a moment, there is a sad history in that the whole issue of financial additionality has clouded our relationship with Brussels since the early 1970s. The Civil Service — and I know that there are some representatives here — had to do a lot of work to produce a plan to use the structural funds that were given to us as a region with Objective 1 status. However, we never got any additional money for that. Civil servants were doing twice the amount of work for no additional money and — from where I am sitting — that coloured their views on Europe for more than a generation. I think that people still take the view that, as regards bureaucracy, Europe is more trouble that it is worth. If that has not changed, it needs to change. We now have a different dispensation — the days of financial additionality are past and we no longer have Objective 1 status, which reinforces the point that I was making about the need to engage positively and proactively on our own behalf.

310. If there are any European liaison officers in Departments, their work needs to be beefed up. If there are no such officers, we should have much more joined-up thinking on Europe and how it will affect legislation here.

311. Jane Morrice and I have fairly infrequent contact with MEPs, partly because of scheduling. The MEPs are in Brussels when we are not and visa versa. There are issues that we could examine jointly, although too few of them. We would welcome greater contact with our MEPs.

312. I suggested in my written submission that a debate in the Assembly on the Northern Ireland task force report would be useful. That document encapsulates everything that we are currently doing and what Europe is doing, and what we need to do to get more traction with Europe. It is an important document, not least at the beginning, where it benchmarks us against the rest of Europe and shows us where we are deficient.

313. The Chairperson: The Committee is waiting for the Executive’s response to the Barroso task force report. It will then consider it, and issues may well flow as to how it is dealt with and how we respond to the Executive’s response.

314. Ms Anderson: Thank you very much for the presentations. I was interested when the role of the EESC was described. It appears to be a real model of participatory democracy. Although 340 members may appear to be quite a lot, it is complementary to representative democracy.

315. Michael talked about the need to become more active, and Jane talked about accepting more pressure. Will you give your opinions on the benefits and opportunities for greater all-Ireland co-operation on European issues? I have in mind the farming community and how it is affected by farming decisions taken at Westminster. Farmers in the Twenty-six Counties appear to be much better off as a result of the South’s relationship with Europe.

316. Would you advocate the establishment of an all-Ireland consultative civic forum in your structure so that you could have the same kind of stakeholder arrangements? If 340 members are able to work in a committee, why not have an all-Ireland committee that could examine issues such as co-operation on farming.

317. Your document referred to high corporation tax, the sterling and euro divide, and how that could deter investors. What is your opinion on that, and on the harmonisation of fiscal matters? You acknowledged the EESC’s support for the creation of a centre for conflict resolution. You also referred to the peace process and the role that that could play in international peace building. What is your opinion on that, and on the potential for political tourism?

318. Ms Morrice: That is quite a menu. If I miss anything, Mike will pick it up. You referred to greater all-Ireland co-operation through a consultative civic forum, the sterling and euro divide, conflict resolution and political tourism.

319. In my written submission I stated that, as part of the island of Ireland and part of the UK, and an administrative region itself, Northern Ireland is in a position to get the best of all worlds. There are examples that could be given about the all-Ireland — or the island-of-Ireland — position; the foot-and-mouth crisis is perhaps the best example. It was excellent to see that, in the agricultural sphere, we were able to take advantage of being on an island. That sort of co-operation is important. I am sure that there are examples involving energy and so on, but I will not go into those in detail.

320. We are in the UK structure, so everything normally goes through London, but there is absolutely no reason why important informal contacts should not be established to take advantage of the useful links that Ireland had in Brussels prior to the Lisbon referendum. I am not saying that those links, which are very important, have worn thinner as a result of the referendum.

321. The value of getting the best of both worlds is most evident when the UK and Ireland are working together in Northern Ireland — the European Peace and Reconciliation Programme is the best example of that. The co-operation that I outlined should be taken advantage of.

322. I believe that the Good Friday Agreement proposed the establishment of a parliamentary consultative civic forum. Such overlapping bodies are very valuable. Obviously the Civic Forum in Northern Ireland, as established by the Good Friday Agreement, is also valuable, and I have mentioned that in my submission. I will leave the issue of the sterling and euro divide for Mike to discuss; he is the expert.

323. Conflict resolution was one of the important issues arising from the task force report. I think that I made the point that it is not just good for Northern Ireland to be able to pass on its experience; it is also very good for Europe. The European Union needs to climb higher as a peacemaker in the world, and a European conflict-resolution centre would be valuable. As far as I am concerned, it makes sense for that to be in Northern Ireland. Political tourism is another issue, which I may leave to Mike to address.

324. Mr Smyth: Thank you for that poisoned chalice. Those are very interesting questions. The UK does not have a civil-society organisation, and we keep getting beat around the head by people in Brussels because of that. I think that the Republic may have two or three such bodies, but I am not sure. The notion of organised civil society does not come easy to the UK. I do not know the reason for that, but we can do something about that here.

325. On the issue of harmonisation, the single European market is the proper framework for harmonisation of all those issues. Whether we like it or not, we want to benefit fully from the single European market. I will not talk about exchange rates, which are a side issue.

326. The principle of parity — that everyone in the UK is entitled to the same level of public services — will eventually apply to Europe. In theory, education services, health services, the harmonisation of training in vocational and professional standards and the greater mobility of labour are integral parts of completing the single European market. We have probably done more of that on this island than other parts of Europe. The Benelux involves almost total mobility of labour, and the Schengen Agreement gives effect to that. In that system, health care is pooled and there is a voucher system for education services.

327. A system that delivers public services in a better and more cost-effective manner on a cross-border basis is desirable. If I were to don my economist hat, I would say that that should happen, rather than have two Administrations working separately and less efficiently. It is ludicrous to have two separate sets of standards that affect social work, teaching, accountancy, architecture or any other professions. There should be no fear of harmonising those services, because that should be done as part of the completion of the single European market.

328. Industrial development was touched upon. The former head of Invest Northern Ireland, for example, has advocated a single industrial development agency on the island of Ireland. I would not go that far. I do not believe that there is a need to combine two sets of bureaucrats. It would be better to bring policies such as corporation tax closer together. That might not be on the agenda at present, and it may not be the right time to discuss it, in the grip of a recession. The Republic of Ireland will always attract more foreign direct investment than Northern Ireland; however, we can build much more effective supply chains with our smaller and more diverse industrial base that will benefit from links with that large, foreign-owned sector in the Republic. Achieving that requires more effective co-ordination of that policy.

329. Doing that does not run foul of state-aid rules. Europe referees that match, and it would positively encourage such co-operation.

330. The Chairperson: Did someone want to comment on political tourism?

331. Ms Morrice: I am very interested in political tourism. It is a very interesting concept. An example of it is that when we had the EESC conference in April 2008, EESC members were brought from Corsica and the Basque country to Belfast for the first time. They were impressed by what they saw and heard at that conference.

332. It was not political tourism, but they were interested in returning and in seeing and learning more. I am certain that others, for example, from America, have the same degree of interest.

333. Mr Smyth: Although I have heard of and know a bit about cultural tourism, I have never heard of the term “political tourism".

334. Mrs D Kelly: I was about to ask the Chairperson what “political tourism" was.

335. Mr Shannon: One must be careful about what flavour of “political tourism" is designated important, in case one side is pitched against the other.

336. Mr Smyth: Cultural tourism is gaining attraction.

337. Ms Anderson: I live in the heart of the Bogside, which is full of murals that depict the history of what happened in that area. It is a living history. It is about people telling the real-life stories of their experiences. Tour guides take people around the Fountain estate as part of the Walled City signature project. Therefore, it is not confined to any geographical space or event.

338. Mr Shannon: I have been on that tour, and it is more aligned to republicanism than unionism. I complained to Derry City Council about that very issue.

339. Ms Anderson: You are pointing your finger at me.

340. The Chairperson: Order. I remind everyone to switch off their mobile phones; never mind cultural or political tourism. Thank you.

341. Mr Molloy: Thank you for your presentations. The witnesses mentioned the early stages of Peace I and Peace II. The bureaucracy of Europe seemed to get in the way of what started as a hands-on approach. We are now very much distant from what happened then. In part, that is down to the Northern Ireland Office, which installed stand-ins in order to minimise local control.

342. How can the issues around Europe and the great opportunities offered there be opened up? The witnesses mentioned their roles, but how can the Assembly best deal with those European issues? Jane talked about a standing committee; however, how would those issues be brought directly to the Assembly?

343. Do you see any benefits for the Assembly? How can it better use the European institutions? Could there be an Assembly office in Europe, not just an Executive office? There could also be more secondments and exchanges. I do not know whether Departments here arrange such exchanges, but the South of Ireland seems to be very effective in securing secondments in Europe and enabling people to gain experience of working in Europe. Perhaps you could give the Committee some indication of how that could be achieved.

344. Mr Smyth: At the launch of the task force report, the Commissioner for Regional Policy, Commissioner Hübner, announced that she had created a post in her office for someone from Northern Ireland. In fact, I have just been told that someone is in post already. President Barroso made a similar offer for his office in Brussels. Those are unprecedented opportunities.

345. Secondments are a great idea, but one has to want to take part in Europe. The situation is a bit like the one with the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS) programme, if the Committee is familiar with it. To me, it is a barometer of our engagement in Europe. Thousands of European kids come to our universities every year, but only a handful of kids from Northern Ireland go to Europe. We can ask why, and there are lots of reasons. I am afraid to say that language teaching here is not up to the mark, but, even if it was, are kids here willing to live and study for a period in other places? The same applies to bureaucrats. The issue is cultural. There is not much that we can do about the past, but, for the future, we can certainly encourage more people from Northern Ireland to work and study in Europe.

346. Mr Molloy mentioned opportunities for input to the Assembly. The simplest way to provide that input is through briefings. The UK Permanent Representation to Europe (UKRep) gives us briefings all the time on every issue that one could dream of that is likely to crop up in the European Parliament or the European Commission. The UKRep sends us the current Government thinking and attitude on the particular issue. One may not agree with the briefing, but it is very useful. We also get briefings from the House of Commons and the House of Lords on matters that are germane to them, and we can choose whether to take them on board or not. We could easily send the Committee succinct briefings on important matters with which we have been dealing at least six months before they hit the ground here. I am very happy to do that.

347. Ms Morrice: Mike talked about input that we in the European Economic Social Committee can provide, but there is also the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland, of which I am the former head. We had a very valuable briefing from Maurice Maxwell, its new head, on the European Commission’s 2009 legislative programme. That briefing was for journalists, but Assembly Members could get exactly the same sort of briefing from the Mr Maxwell.

348. I brought the legislative programme along today, as it may be of interest to members. It is so simple. This small document outlines all the work that the Commission will be involved in over the next year. I have picked out a few pieces of work; the accountancy burdens for small businesses is one item of business, and there is the Green Paper on the reform of the common fisheries policy. The Departments will obviously be aware of those pieces of work, but it is very useful to have an overarching understanding of where the input is needed. There are to be directives on late payments in commercial transactions; cross-border mobility of young people; non-legislative action on financing of low-carbon technologies. That work lies ahead, and there is also work on health and education, and it is all detailed in this paper. You can read it, pick out what you want and run with it.

349. Secondments to EU institutions were mentioned, and they are hugely important. There is the odd secondment here. There are secondments from the Civil Service to the European Commission, but why could there not be secondments from the voluntary sector to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), to our Committee, the Committee of the Regions or the Parliament? It is quite important that the secondments are offered to all sorts of people, not just civil servants. What about secondments to the Executive office, too? You talked about the Executive office. Secondments to that office should be arranged, or the number of jobs in that office could be increased in order to accommodate the needs of the Assembly.

350. Mr Spratt: Thank you for your presentations. I made a note of a couple of phrases that you used in your presentation, Mike. You said that we needed to seek funding, and that there was a need to be much more active. You also said that there are currently many opportunities in Europe for funding. I suppose that begs a question about what is being done at present, and why you said what you did, given that we have been tapping into Peace funding. This issue has come up in other briefings that we have received, particularly when we visited the Northern Ireland office in Europe. During that visit, several people suggested to us that opportunities were available. How do we avail ourselves of those opportunities?

351. Mr Smyth: I like a good, simple question, and there is a simple answer. It goes back to what I said about our 35-year membership of the EU. During that time, we have not had to do what you are asking about, because the funding was just given to us, and all we had to do was manage it. We did not have to compete for INTERREG or LEADER+ funding; those were European horizontal programmes.

352. The discretionary programmes, such as the framework programmes, which are the major source of European research funding, amount to a couple of billion euros every three years. Our uptake of that funding has been very patchy, the reason being that our universities, which are the main focus for research opportunities, have been focused on other national research competitions.

353. Other programmes, such as ERASMUS, are not competitive in nature. That is a programme that we should get involved in so that we can encourage more of our kids to go abroad, learn foreign languages and study in other countries. That is a matter for the Department of Education to co-ordinate.

354. Partenariats take place in Strasbourg and Brussels a couple of times a year. Francie, you may have taken part in one, I am not sure. They are a bit like cattle markets, because you go there to find a partner from another member state in order to do something jointly. You have to make the effort to go and do that, but we could establish a programme that would encourage people to take that opportunity.

355. Mr Shannon: Are you looking for another partner, Francie?

356. Mr Molloy: Several.

357. The Chairperson: I remind members that the meeting is being recorded by Hansard.

358. Mr Smyth: If memory serves me, there were outreach programmes to the former front-line states of the collapsed Soviet system, which we took part in, and those are ongoing.

359. The answer to the question is that we must regularly communicate to local authorities, to the Assembly and to the public service in Northern Ireland the opportunities and programmes that are available. Those all have a lead time, and require administration, which, as Mr Molloy said, becomes more onerous year after year. There is nothing that can be done about that, however. If you want to take part, you have to be ready and prepared. It is a matter of making people aware of the opportunities that exist, and encouraging them to take part.

360. Ms Morrice: It has been done for us in the report published by the EC task force. I listed a few opportunities in my submission, such as the peer-learning clusters, which help to create better understanding of educational reform, and the creation of quality food programmes. I do not know where everyone is from, but we have Comber potatoes, Armagh apples —

361. Mr Shannon: Portavogie prawns.

362. Ms Morrice: Portavogie prawns — perfect. I love alliteration as well. The creation of quality-food programmes will form part of the Commission’s legislative programme for this year, and if we want to influence it, we must start work now. The EC task force report points to that as being a valuable measure to take.

363. Big money is also available through the European Investment Bank (EIB). It is talking about investment in eco-technologies, and the opportunity for green technologies is huge in Northern Ireland. The European Investment Bank is ready to lend money for that purpose. Are we not taking advantage of that?

364. The Chairperson: Not many banks are currently doing that.

365. Ms Morrice: The European Investment Bank is prepared to lend money.

366. Mr Smyth: The EIB has set aside €30 billion over the next three years for finance to small and medium-sized enterprises. Gordon Brown has already announced that the UK’s share of that will be £4 billion. Northern Ireland’s share of that will be £120 million.

367. The European Investment Bank does not lend money directly; it operates as a syndicate through existing banks. Chairman, you are right, and I know of only one bank that has actively contacted me to seek more information, which I passed on.

368. Mrs Long: Thank you for your presentation and for your answers to the questions. Those have answered a couple of the questions that I had noted down at the beginning of the meeting.

369. Mike mentioned the lack of a formally organised civic sector in the UK. How much more difficult does that make your role in representing a Northern Ireland position when you are on the EESC or giving a view? How reflective can your views be if there is not an organised civic forum or another sounding board?

370. Mr Smyth: To take a slight tangent, I rarely fail to mention Northern Ireland during debates in the programme. One must refer to one’s own experience and to the effect that that will have. The UK is very fragmented; many of our colleagues are members of employers’ organisations and of trade unions. A coterie of us in group III from the UK comprises one Welshman, one Scot and two people from Northern Ireland. Some of the people from group I are from Scotland, and some of the people from group I or group II are from Wales. That reflects the rather shambolic attitude in the UK to organised civil society. Our Civic Forum was an attempt to address that more systematically.

371. I notice a difference in the cohesiveness and the energy levels among member states that have civic forums. Those states tend to get on well together and work together, but the UK is always slightly on the sidelines. We have more on which to collaborate with our colleagues in the Republic. There is no lack of willingness on our part, but it would help to have a representative body.

372. Ms Morrice: In my submission, I mentioned that the consultation on the civic forum for here should consider the model of the European Economic and Social Committee. That would be invaluable when considering a civic forum here, for which there is allowance. In UK terms, it would be interesting to have a civic forum here that would help us to channel information.

373. I also wish to mention the right to put forward own initiative opinions. Last year, Mike and I, alongside the Irish representatives and other EESC members, worked on a report on the European Union’s role in the Northern Ireland peace process. I was the rapporteur on that, and your Committee has the document that was approved. That was an own-initiative opinion. The EESC had asked what we needed to look at that was important, and, because of what happened with devolution, we put our hand up to suggest that we consider the role of the EU in the Northern Ireland peace process.

374. It was interesting that the EESC did not know in which section to put the report, whether that should be the Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship (SOC), the Section for External Relations (REX), and whether to approve it. It was a bit worried about approving that report, but it did so and was impressed by the work of the EESC and by the report. In October 2008, the report was approved almost unanimously, except for two votes. That was an own-initiative option. We can pick up on something that is of import to Northern Ireland and present it to the EESC, which is a valuable way to work.

375. Mrs Long: You have led into my other question, which is about where you feel your interventions have influenced direction and made changes to the context of, and the implications for, Northern Ireland. You mentioned raising issues that are of import in the context of Northern Ireland, but how do you discern what those are? Is that done through meetings with elected representatives, the community and voluntary sectors and business organisations? Would it be useful for you to have a forum that is designed as a sounding board to help you to make decisions about issues that you can pursue collectively?

376. Mr Smyth: I can speak only for myself. If a particular issue is being, or is about to be, debated in the EESC, and I need to speak to someone about it, I will find out who in Northern Ireland knows most about that issue and find out what their position is. Invariably, that will be a senior civil servant, someone in the business community or someone involved in the community and voluntary sectors. I will go to see that person, but it would absolutely help to have such a forum. I take Jane’s point that — less than perfect though it may be — the EESC model works. It involves 340 people but it works, by jove. It is quite efficient.

377. Mr McElduff: Will the witnesses detail their experience of the Executive office in Brussels — that is, its strengths and weaknesses, as they see it? Will Jane expand on her thinking on the civic-forum model, based on her participation on the EESC?

378. Ms Morrice: I am afraid to say that I have nothing but good to say about the Executive office, because of the support we received for the conference and for my report. The support that I got from OFMDFM and the Executive office was nothing short of superb. That is not the full extent of their support. We are on their invitation list and attend their events when we can, to make contact with groups that are working in Brussels or that may be visiting from Northern Ireland. The offices are very useful in that respect, and are also useful for briefings.

379. In response to a previous question, I was going to mention that I was on a study group for harmonisation of road safety infrastructure throughout the European Union. That group was discussing, for example, an accident black spot in Portugal where 10 people were killed and an accident black spot in Britain where two people were killed. I do not know how to define it, but they were trying to define the concept of an accident black spot. I was able to have input to that group — its work was valuable and measures have been taken as a result of it. I can go into more detail on that but there is no time now. The Executive office helped me with that and briefed me on the issue, so its support was very useful.

380. By the way, if I were to suggest any change to be made to the Executive office, it is that it should be given more resources and more work to do; I believe that its resources are limited.

381. Obviously, given my background, I am very aware of the civic forum idea and the fact that it could be modelled on a social partnership, such as the EESC model, which involves having three groups. Therefore, it is possible to get the opinions of employers and business, employees and trade unions, as well as other interests such as the voluntary sector, farmers’ representatives, churches, young people, women, and so on.

382. The interesting aspect about the way that we work in the EESC is that there is compromise. Each committee has a representative from each group and must reach a compromise between the three positions, and that is the opinion that comes out at the end of the process. That sort of valuable work could be done in a civic forum here — an opinion could be agreed by the civic forum and then go to the Assembly for Members to take note of and value from.

383. Mr Smyth: On a reflective point about anything I have done on the EESC — I have to confess to total selfishness, as I sit on the INT and the ECO sections. I take part in all debates. Wonderful research facilities and a library are available. We have access to all the European buildings and to people on the Commission. Therefore, if I need information, I find out who is responsible, phone or email that person, and arrange a meeting with him or her. I have been doing that and have taken part in debates on Europe-wide matters and on completion of the single market, about which I can profess to know something.

384. The nearest that I have got to constructive action on Northern Ireland was to collaborate with Jane on her opinion on the role of the European Union in Northern Ireland’s peace process, which was her initiative. That was a wonderful experience.

385. To return to the point about the Executive office in Brussels, its strengths are its broad base and the good people who work there. I am aware of its programme of events; I have managed to attend a few, which have been useful. To return to the theme that I have tried to put across, although it is not a weakness, the office needs to be challenged and to be overwhelmed by people going to Brussels to engage with it — not just MLAs, but local authorities, community and voluntary groups and organisations, and so on. The office exists to facilitate that. Its predecessor used to do so. Colm McClements was there, for example. It used to arrange such visits. I am not sure whether the title of Office of the Northern Ireland Executive now makes that more difficult. The office should be challenged — indeed, overwhelmed — with requests for engagement. Only then, can a view be taken on whether it is effective.

386. Mrs D Kelly: I apologise for my late arrival, Chairperson. I welcome Mr the witnesses to the meeting. Forgive me if I ask questions that have already been asked.

387. How are you appointed to the EESC and to whom do you report? Does the EESC have the power or opportunity to amend legislation and policy or to formulate it? In that regard, have you tabled or do you intend to table any issues that relate to gender equality and conflict resolution, particularly given the recent accession of Eastern European states and lessons that have been learnt? Northern Ireland is still a long way from community reconciliation.

388. Mr Smyth: On the appointment process, the phrase “black box" comes to mind. There was a competition, to which I applied. After a while, I was appointed. Subsequently, we found out roughly what happened. Since then, there has been a mid-term review with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. There is an intention to make the process for re-appointment more transparent. Therefore, there will be another competition. That is made difficult by the fact that it must be approved by the Council of Ministers. That is a stumbling block.

389. Ms Morrice: In my introduction, I explained that we were appointed by the UK Minister for Europe, who, at the time, was Geoff Hoon. All appointments must be ratified by the Council of Ministers.

390. Mrs D Kelly: Do you have the opportunity to amend policy?

391. Mr Smyth: No, we scrutinise and, I would argue, we tighten up and improve legislation that comes through to us. The EESC has operated for over 50 years. Since we have been in post, it has instigated a formal process by which the rapporteur, who chairs the scrutiny of a piece of legislation, is then obliged to monitor how, when and if it is implemented. That is a close as we get to it.

392. Ms Morrice: As regards gender equality, I sit on the committee’s SOC section, which deals with equality. We are in the process of scrutinising anti-discrimination legislation and equality legislation. Obviously, we will enter into the debate on a single equality Act and such issues.

393. The issue of gender equality is particularly interesting. We still go to great lengths to promote the role of women — even within the EESC itself. Although I do not know the numbers, it is interesting that Eastern European countries have a much higher quota of women and young women. We are trying to reach that level.

394. Ms Anderson: I want to discuss the gender equality issue, because Peace III seemed to ignore the women’s sector. The EESC focuses on gender equality. How do its discussions tie in with the introduction of a programme that will have an impact here, the result of which is that women’s groups are airbrushed?

395. Ms Morrice: We could flag the matter up by inserting it into debate on the equality legislation, or we could try an own-initiative opinion, although I am unsure whether the EESC will specifically discuss Northern Ireland so soon after the previous opinion. However, the issue of problems that face the women’s sector could be flagged up through the Executive office and the MEPs, who could raise it in the European Parliament and the Committee of the Regions. We must lobby Europe to reinstate those issues, and the EESC knows how that process operates.

396. Mr Smyth: What was the consultation process that led up to Peace III? Was there any meaningful dialogue with the community and voluntary sectors?

397. Ms Anderson: I can speak only for the north-west, particularly the Derry area. Through consultations that took place during the developmental stage of Peace III, it was difficult for groups that were struggling to cope with Peace II to understand the implications of Peace III, which seemed a long way in the future. People felt the impact of Peace III only when it was too late to invoke any European intervention.

398. Some attempts were made; the MEP visited the city and different parts of the North. However, it was difficult for groups to engage with that process because they were still working with and benefiting from Peace II and had not recognised the future impact of Peace III. Many groups are now complaining that it is too late to make interventions. A group of women from the city visited Europe, where the processes and timescales for making interventions were explained. There was talk of a mid-term review of Peace III, at which point interventions could be made whereby the impact of the programme on groups and organisations could be reviewed.

399. Ms Morrice: It is the role of MLAs to shout loud and make such changes.

400. The Chairperson: Thank you for your attendance and presentation. I have extended the discussion because it was useful. You might want to send the additional information to the Committee or we might seek further clarification in writing.

21 January 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Sean Neeson

Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

401. The Chairperson: We are pleased to welcome Mr Sean Neeson to continue the consideration of EU issues. Mr Neeson is the Northern Ireland member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (CLRAE), and he is no stranger to members of the Committee or the House. Mr Neeson’s submission to the inquiry, and a summary thereof, are contained in members’ packs. You are very welcome, Sean. You are on home territory, and I thank you for making yourself available.

402. As you know, the Committee is considering European issues and how best the Assembly can work. You were obviously listening intently to the previous discussion. The Committee is interested in your views. You may wish to make introductory remarks and leave yourself open to questions. The session is being recorded for the Hansard report.

403. Mr Sean Neeson (Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe): Thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee. I have been a member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in Europe since 2002. The congress is part of the Council of Europe and, unlike the EU, it has a significant membership of 47 countries. However, it has mainly an advisory role. It meets in plenary session twice a year in the Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg. The next meeting is planned for March 2009.

404. The congress is made up of representatives from local government and regional government throughout Europe. Essentially, there are two chambers. I am part of the UK group, which has 18 full members and 18 alternate members. The alternate member for Northern Ireland is Councillor Jim Dillon from Lisburn. There are four main committees that meet twice a year approximately, and, unfortunately, in some very remote areas. The institutional committee meets four times a year and has a monitoring role in local and regional elections throughout Europe. The committee on culture and education speaks for itself. The committee on sustainable development deals mainly with environmental issues, and I serve on that committee. The committee on social cohesion deals with employment and citizenship issues.

405. The former Eastern bloc counties are very active in lobbying and networking. I have found that regions of those countries are keen to put on special events, particularly during sessions of the congress.

406. I also served on the EU Committee of the Regions for three years, which was the first tranche of the Committee of the Regions. It was looked on with some suspicion by some MEPs, and I am still not sure whether its full role has been recognised. I acted as an alternate for Sir Reg Empey and Denis Haughey, and had many opportunities to attend meetings in Brussels and in other areas of Europe. However, since enlargement, the new member states are trying to give it greater recognition and, clearly, their presence in Brussels has been greatly enhanced since enlargement.

407. When I served on the Committee of the Regions, the UK and Irish representatives worked closely together. In fact, the UK and Irish representatives also tended to work closely in the congress.

408. I also served on the board of the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe, which had offices in Belfast and Brussels. It was funded originally by local government, although not all local councils participated, and also by the private and public sector. Gerry McAlinden has made a name for himself in Brussels and has brought Northern Ireland to the fore. He is very active in lobbying and networking, and has worked closely with the three MEPs.

409. I am not sure whether it was 1998 or 1999, but some members may remember that the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe and the European Commission organised a fact-finding visit to Brussels for all MLAs. That shows the importance that Members attached to linkages with Europe.

410. The Committee Clerk may remember that when the former DETI Committee was carrying out its enquiry into energy, it visited Denmark and the Executive Office in Brussels. The one thing that I always remember is that, while we were waiting in Brussels Airport to fly on to Copenhagen, news came through about 9/11, so that was a poignant time.

411. We found the Executive Office in Brussels to be very helpful — at that time, there were two members of staff. The Committee followed up the visit to Brussels by requesting that it be sent all relevant EU directives immediately after issue. The resources, structure and the role of the Executive Office in Brussels should be reviewed by the Committee. In comparison with the other regional offices in Brussels, the Executive Office is hugely under-resourced, which must be examined.

412. The Committee will study the presence of other regions in Brussels. The Assembly Commission and the Assembly and Business Trust are also investigating how they can develop meaningful links with the EU, particularly to discuss the terms of enlargement, because that is having a big impact.

413. The Assembly and Business Trust already has an international dimension as a member of the International Association of Business and Parliament (IABP), which has representatives from other regions in the UK and countries such as Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Spain. It is also important that the Committee considers the role of UKRep in Brussels.

414. I ask the Committee to consider lobbying on access to Strasbourg and Brussels. There are no longer direct flights between Belfast and Brussels, and getting to Strasbourg is a nightmare, because one has to first fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, which is a nightmare airport, and then fly on to Strasbourg, so the journey takes almost a day in total. The whole question of access, particularly to Brussels, should be examined.

415. Mr Spratt: We were impressed with the Executive Office in Brussels when we visited. From the briefings that we received, which were intense, lobbying seems to be a big thing, and there was a consensus that we could do better. An audit of the staffing in the Executive Office in Brussels is intended, before a strategy to employ more staff in is devised, which is a wise move.

416. When we visited Dublin several weeks ago to examine the ways that they scrutinise European issues down South, the people we spoke to said that the Dáil had learnt a lot from the system at Westminster, through the Committees in the House of Commons and, particularly, the House of Lords that scrutinise European legislation.

417. I noticed that you mentioned your Scottish and Welsh counterparts in Brussels — in comparison with what the Northern Ireland Office does, are the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly better at lobbying and getting funding?

418. Mr Neeson: I have met Scottish officials, some of whom serve on the congress with me. They are better resourced and have bigger populations. However, we must take into consideration how things are changing in Northern Ireland. We have benefited a lot from peace funding. All of that is drying up now, which reinforces the need to increase the presence of Northern Ireland in Brussels. As you rightly said, it is not only a question of lobbying — it is also about networking. Gerry McAlinden played a very important role in that area, as did Dr Colm McClements. After they left their jobs, we only had the office here in Northern Ireland — although a fantastic amount of work was done by John Kennedy and Claire Whitten. Latterly, we were financed by the Department of Finance and Personnel. The Committee ended about three years ago.

419. Those people provided assistance and help, but nobody does that currently. There are two members of staff in the Executive Office. As I said in my paper, we need to consider that not just as an Executive Office but as a Northern Ireland Assembly Office. We need to encourage Members of the Assembly to make greater use of the Office, and we need create a greater awareness of the EU system and how it operates.

420. Mr Elliott: Thank you for your presentation, Sean. I have a couple of issues. Is the congress almost an advisory role? Does it have any legislative standing at all?

421. Mr Neeson: No.

422. Mr Elliott: Is it advisory, or does it purely have an administrative purpose? Is it like one of the lobby groups?

423. Mr Neeson: It is really an advisory role. It considers different topics on a regional basis that may be of interest. The fact that there are only two plenary sessions each year means that the amount of work is fairly limited — much less than the work of the Committee of the Regions. However, it has a role in the sense that it brings representatives from local and regional Governments throughout Europe together. The very fact that that is at local level gives a new dimension to the set-up.

424. Mr Elliott: I have a follow-up question. You said that there was a demand to get information out to regions or countries as soon as legislation was made. Perhaps you cannot answer this question, but we need to find out — who advises Parliaments or Governments of when the legislative process starts for some of the directives? I am trying to keep the focus on that, because that is the time when we would have the most influence.

425. Mr Neeson: From our perspective, UKRep receives notice of new directives that emerge. Either the Assembly or individual Committees would operate through UKRep. We found it very useful when we received prior notice of changes that were being proposed. A lot of the matters that we currently deal with on the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment relates to the impact of European directives and bringing us into line with other parts of Europe. To that extent, it is important that — at a very early stage — we get sight of the changes that come from Brussels.

426. Mr Molloy: Thank you for the presentation, Sean. What is the difference between the two bodies on which you served? Is there a mechanism in the Assembly or elsewhere to which you report? Do you have any sources that provide you with support or backup when you attend meetings?

427. Mr Neeson: Most of the backup comes from the Local Government Association in London, which has a substantial number of staff and provides assistance in releasing information from the congress. However, in this wonderful age of email, I receive much information directly from Strasbourg and am updated regularly on relevant changes.

428. The other issue is important. I was elected to that position by the Assembly, and, therefore, it would be worthwhile to establish a mechanism whereby I could report back developments in Strasbourg to the Assembly. The next plenary session will be at the start of March.

429. Mr Molloy: Does the Local Government Association in London have any ties with NILGA in providing advice or support?

430. Mr Neeson: NILGA helped to organise the joint meeting of the UK and Irish members of the Committee of the Regions and the congress’s meeting in Belfast in 2008. Moreover, the Speaker facilitated a dinner at Stormont for all members, which was greatly appreciated.

431. The Chairperson: Does the congress have a formal link with NILGA other than that one-off conference?

432. Mr Neeson: I am a member of a NILGA committee that deals with European affairs. It meets fairly regularly, but comprises mainly councillors. I am the only MLA who attends the meetings.

433. Mrs Long: Thank you for the presentation. Francie Molloy has asked my question about mechanisms for reporting back to the Assembly, and Sean has already answered it. You mentioned that issue in your presentation, and it should be considered.

434. Mr Shannon: From where do you source your information in order to ensure that you have a perspective of the views of all political parties? You mentioned that your role is advisory. When you gather that information, to whom do you submit it? What is your relationship with other regions on issues of mutual interest? You are aware of issues that are important to Northern Ireland because you live here, but other areas might want to pursue similar issues.

435. Mr Neeson: The relationships with other regions are generally good, because committee meetings are held in diverse places. For example, the previous meeting of the committee on sustainable development was held in St Petersburg. It was almost impossible to obtain a visa, and that is a problem with scheduling meetings in remote regions.

436. Mr Shannon: If you were a football fan, you would have probably got there more quickly.

437. The Chairperson: You have been on more planes than Judith Chalmers.

438. Mr Neeson: Much of the information is gathered through the Local Government Association, which does a wonderful job in keeping members abreast of what is happening. Furthermore, it assists with organising accommodation, and so on.

439. Ms Anderson: You must feel isolated by the lack of direction or accountability, and your personal political outlook might influence any advice that you give. As you have been appointed by the Assembly, I am sure that you would appreciate a better connection. An MLA who is not a councillor would not have the connections with NILGA that you do.

440. I want to ask about connectivity with other ongoing European activity and initiatives. Bairbre de Brún mentioned the European Grouping for Territorial Cooperation (EGTC). My limited understanding of that grouping is that it is designed to facilitate and promote greater cross-border relationships and co-operation, and that councils, public bodies and others — on both sides of the border —can participate in that grouping. If that were to be implemented would it have a legal framework, and is that the sort of activity that your organisation would examine? It would be a congress for local councils and could ensure greater co-operation, and it could also ensure that initiatives take place, on a cross-border basis, during the current economic downturn. After all, Europe has told us that those who live adjacent to borders are more like to be deprived, because of the impact that borders have on people.

441. Does your organisation simply give advice, or does it also connect with other activities that could relate to what you do?

442. Mr Neeson: In relation to advice, the UK members work collectively on that. They also work closely with the Irish delegation as well, which I think is very important.

443. The committee on sustainable development deals strongly with environmental issues and improvement. It is difficult at times, bearing in mind that some of the emerging countries do not have the same levels of environmental standards that exist here. However, unlike the system here there are rapporteurs that are drawn from the elected members. They draw up a report and that report is brought to the plenary session of the congress. If the report is passed by the congress it is then passed to the Council of Europe for consideration. Bearing in mind the extent of the membership of the Council of Europe, which is much larger than the EU, it has a more widespread effect on attempts to influence countries to adopt policies on issues such as the environment.

444. The institutional committee has been fairly controversial in recent times. One of the countries that it has engaged with is Georgia, and it has taken an active role in the oversight of elections there. The reports that have come back continuously from Georgia demonstrate that its democracy is not that democratic at all. Therefore, that committee helps to expose countries that are not adhering to the democratic principles to which we adhere.

445. Mr Moutray: Sean, you are very welcome. What relationship, if any, exists between your organisation and the Committee of the Regions? Is there any interaction?

446. Mr Neeson: The only relationship that we have is through the annual meeting of the UK and Irish representatives of the Committee of the Regions and the congress. At those meetings we deal with current issues in the Committee of the Regions and the congress. It is a very worthwhile vehicle, and I was delighted that they came to Northern Ireland last year. The important thing is that the UK and the Irish delegations meet together, demonstrating the form of co-operation that exists between the two countries, and the last meeting, which I was unable to attend, was held two weeks ago. Those meetings are worthwhile and represent good, genuine co-operation between the members of the Committee of the Regions and the congress.

447. The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation, Sean, and for the clarity of your answers. If you have any additional information that you want to provide, or if the Committee require clarification, we will be in contact with you. Furthermore, when the Committee publishes its report we will ensure that you receive a copy.

21 January 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:
Ms Bairbre de Brún MEP

448. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): I welcome Bairbre de Brún MEP. Ms de Brún’s report on the evaluation of the Peace programme strategies for the future has been distributed to members.

449. The format that we use in Committee meetings is that we allow you to make a presentation, leaving time for questions. We hope that the session will last for no more than 45 minutes. The session is being recorded by Hansard to help the Committee to compile its report at a later stage.

450. Ms Bairbre de Brún MEP: Thank you, Chairperson. I would like to extend my thanks to the Committee for inviting me here to speak with you today. As you will remember, the Committee originally invited me to give a presentation on 12 December 2008, but I was part of the European Parliament’s delegation at the United Nations conference on climate change in Poznan at that time. I am particularly grateful to the Committee for setting another date to allow me to come and talk to you.

451. I would like to look at the Assembly’s role in enhancing its engagement with EU issues under a number of general headings: EU programmes and funding, policy discussions, and EU structures, bodies and events. Some of those topics will overlap somewhat.

452. Regarding EU programmes and funding: the EU task force report lays out possibilities and opportunities in the time ahead. Each Assembly Committee should debate the relevant section of the task force report, and debate it with people in the community who are already engaged in work in those particular fields; such as the social partners, the voluntary and community sector, and statutory bodies. That would enable them to make recommendations about the kind of progress that they would like to see in a particular field on the recommendations of the task force, or to suggest any recommendations that they feel should have been there.

453. The more that the Committees and the Departments proactively engage in this debate, the clearer the specific demands that the Assembly has to make of the EU institutions will be. It will also make clearer the items on which people want to lobby or engage with other regions throughout the EU on that particular field. The field could be employment and learning, environment or agriculture and rural development, for example.

454. Each Department also has an official who is designated to deal with its counterpart in the European Commission on the task force. For each Committee, that official would be someone who could be invited to the relevant Committee to brief it on their views and to engage in that kind of discussion. The European Commission Office in Belfast is also part of that, and the head of the Office — previously Eddie McVeigh, now Maurice Maxwell — would be an obvious choice of person to add to such an engagement as well.

455. On another, similar item, Committees could engage with the section relevant to them regarding the European economic recovery plan that was announced in November. That will be part of the legislative programme in the time ahead.

456. Regarding policies, my understanding is that currently, the Assembly tends to engage mostly at the implementation stage. I understand that approximately 70% of Assembly legislation has its origins in EU legislation. The Commission sets out the legislative programme for the year ahead, and again, Assembly Committees could access this information and then prioritise the pieces that they want to look at. Probably of interest would not only be legislation coming before the European Parliament, but the very early stages of that. I will return to that point.

457. Departments here could also gain a lot of information and experience from secondments. We are very fortunate at the moment in that the Regional Policy Commissioner Danuta Hübner has seconded a member of the Northern Ireland Civil Service to work in her inner office, which is quite a coup for us.

458. Some Ministers and Departments engage in advance of the legislation being proposed. To give an example; I was a shadow rapporteur on the revision of the waste framework directive, which has now passed back to the Assembly for implementation. Prior to that coming before the European Parliament, the Department of the Environment brought civil servants and representatives of the waste management groups to meet with the Commission and MEPs, and to look at the policy formation stage to see what they could expect to be coming down the line at them.

459. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development also engages in discussions in Brussels on a regular basis. It has a designated official in the NI Executive Office in Brussels, who is very useful indeed. Michelle Gildernew has been a regular visitor to Brussels.

460. There have also been cross-departmental study groups and study visits. Officials from across the Departments have come out to see the working of the European institutions and have met with us. My view is, and I may be dealing with matters that you have already discussed, that a tailored visit for Committee staff would be very useful, and possibly a separate visit for MLAs. I think that the Committee staff would benefit from such a visit.

461. I mentioned earlier that it could be useful for the Assembly and the Executive to engage with EU institutions at an early stage of policy development, such as when a Green Paper is published. For example, a Green Paper consultation on territorial cohesion is just coming to an end, and the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) is actively interested in being involved in that and in inviting someone from the commission to come and talk to it. Another example in the upcoming 2009 legislative programme is the Green Paper on a review of the Common Fisheries Policy. Such engagement must take place long before the stage of formulating any legislative proposals, and that gives you a chance to be involved from the ground up, rather than deal with it only at the implementation stage.

462. There are many levels of formal and informal bodies that the Assembly could engage with regarding the new structures, bodies and events, and I would encourage such proactive engagement. Already, the Committee will have met with some of those bodies; for example, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, or the Committee of the Regions. Other regions have offices in Brussels, including the Länder — which are the federal states within Germany — Catalonia and the Basque country. From the South, the Irish Regions Office deals with a number of regions and acts as the secretariat for its Committee of the Regions representative.

463. It would be useful, I think, for the Assembly to look at how actively it wants to engage with the 2009 regional development Open Days event, in October, in Brussels. Open Days is an annual event where those different regional offices, and other local and regional groupings and authorities, come together to put on events, network and engage on chosen themes. This year, under the headline, ‘Global Challenges, European Solutions’, the seminars will cover themes relating to the regional responses to the economic crisis, climate change, territorial co-operation, and the impact and future of EU cohesion policy. I have to stress that beyond the Assembly putting on an event, Open Days is a hugely beneficial networking opportunity for people from here to see what is happening in other regions of Europe.

464. The Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Dáil, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, all have committees that scrutinise EU policy. Again, I know that the Committee has engaged with, or is planning to meet with, some of those institutions. The Assembly may wish to send representatives to events held by individual European Parliament committees.

465. The main thing, I feel, is for the Assembly to decide what level of priority it wishes to give to EU issues, in advance of having to implement directives. Or, for an individual Committee to decide what level of priority it wishes to give to that. First and foremost, the political will must be assessed, followed by the level of resources needed to carry that through. It must be decided what level of priority the Assembly wants to give to an ongoing and timely engagement with the range of EU institutions and bodies.

466. I am more than happy to meet with this, or any other, Assembly Committee, or to brief political groups within the Assembly on ongoing or forthcoming issues. In the past several years, I have worked on climate change, the environment, regional development, economic development, agriculture and rural development, and equality issues; however, I am more than happy to speak to the Assembly on any other issues.

467. The Chairperson: Thank you very much. That was helpful. You outlined your knowledge of other regions and other areas. Are there any areas of good practice that we could examine and compare as regards a regional Assembly and the status that we have as part of the EU?

468. Ms de Brún: The regions of Catalonia and the Basque country would be of interest to us in the way that they engage. As regards the German Länder, Bavaria is one of the most successful. However, its resources and powers are far beyond anything that we have. When the Assembly was set up for the first time, I went on a visit to the Bavarian office. Sometimes it is useful to visit less successful offices — in overall terms — that are closer to what we could manage to do. For example, the German federal structure is such that when we introduce legislation in the European Parliament, the Committee sometimes drafts wording for the competent authority, rather than simply the member states, because one of the German Länder might be the competent authority that would deal directly with the EU. Those would be the interesting offices, but for different reasons.

469. Some of the Scandinavian offices would also be interesting, as would the Irish Regions office, which has fewer powers than us, but is used as the secretariat for the Committee of the Regions and also facilitates fairly regular visits from some of the regions in the South of Ireland to Brussels.

470. The Chairperson: In earlier sessions with what might be described as your MEP colleagues, they expressed some concern and criticism of the relationship between the local MEPs and the Northern Ireland Executive — not the Executive office in Brussels, but the Northern Ireland Executive. Do you have any views on that?

471. Ms de Brún: The engagement with the Executive office in Brussels is excellent. The staff are very helpful and professional in the way that they carry out their work. They are members of the Civil Service and come under OFMDFM. If we are engaging with OFMDFM, we tend to do so — or I certainly tend to do so more frequently — with the office, because it is there and because we work so closely together. However, the MEPs and the rest of the Executive might want to have closer working relationships.

472. Mr Elliott: You touched briefly on when a member state becomes involved in legislation. Is that before the legislative process or during the process? From my point of view, it is always too late if one becomes involved at the end of the process. How realistic is it to make an impact at an early stage? Normally, when we try to do anything about it, it is too late.

473. Ms de Brún: It is very realistic, as long as the Committee or the Assembly here can decide what they want to prioritise. The amount of influence they wish to have may be small or large, depending in the particular proposal coming forward. For example, on one of the recent visits with civil servants from here, one of them was looking at advance discussion around the EU energy market and noticed one line would be detrimental in what they were trying to do here.

474. They were then going back to try to ensure that that line would be removed or changed in some way before it was included in actual legislation. I made it very clear that, if they had not managed that by the time it came before the European Parliament, then I would look out for that line, and ensure that the issue was tackled in the European Parliament. That is one example.

475. There are a number of upcoming issues on which we may wish to have some input; for example a communication on university business dialogue will be produced in 2009. Another communication on the future of transport will also be produced. Those are issues that are of interest to people here. Cutting accountancy burdens for small businesses is another such issue. When the Commission is formulating new ideas and policies, its officials are very open to hearing from national, regional and local bodies.

476. On some matters, our view may be that a lot of intervention is required; such as on the Green Paper on the reform of the common fisheries policy. That is an issue on which the Assembly Committee here could engage with the Ministers here, and in DEFRA.

477. Mr Elliott: Is there any realisation in the European Parliament of how big an impact the decisions made there have on the member states — particularly on the agriculture industry, through environmental directives — or are they living in a wee box of their own over there?

478. Ms de Brún: On the one hand, there is a realisation, and there is quite a lively debate. Things do change — quite considerably at times — between the initial proposals being made and the way those proposals end up being presented to the Parliament. One of the problems that I have found is that a lobbying industry has grown up in Brussels, which tends to cry foul automatically, as a negotiating position, every time a piece of legislation is produced. Because of that, when one brings up genuine concerns that have been expressed — for example, on the recent legislation on pesticides —fellow MEPs often assume that you are coming with another industry lobby for the sake of negotiating, and they do not take it as seriously as they might otherwise do. However, I still believe that is possible to make an impact, and important to try to do so.

479. Mr Shannon: It is nice to see you here, Ms de Brún. There are a couple of questions that I have asked of the other MEPs, and it is only appropriate that I ask them of you as well, so that we will have the three answers on record. In the area that I represent— no doubt people will realise that I am being parochial again — fishing is a very important part of the lifestyle and of the economy. What is your relationship with the fishing organisations? Do they lobby you? Do you respond to that lobbying? Do you have early contact with them in relation to addressing the critical December meeting in Brussels? Is there a relationship on the issue of how you respond, and how the fishing organisations respond to you?

480. Ms de Brún: First, my relationship with the fishing organisations has been good, and they have lobbied me. In recent times they have lobbied me far less since my party took over the Ministry — they now tend to go straight to the Minister rather than to me. They have good access, and they get good briefings about what is going on at the December meetings.

481. I have noticed that the fishing organisations do not feel that they need to come to me in the way that they did previously. Agriculture organisations still approach me about certain issues. The Committees of the European Parliament deal with a lot of business pertaining to them, so they come to lobby.

482. I imagine that the fishing organisations will approach me again when some of the work on the reform of the common fisheries policy goes through Parliament. Given that the Ministers in Council deal with the day-to-day work in relation to the fisheries policy and the December meetings, the fishing organisations tend to bypass me and go straight to them. However, I have had good working relationships with those organisations, and I have responded to them.

483. Mr Shannon: On behalf of the fishing organisations, I have to say that they were much happier with the response that they got at the December meeting. Although, they were not completely happy with the end result, they were happier with the process of communication. Obviously, they view the quota restrictions as fairly draconian. Did you make it your business to attend the meeting in December?

484. Ms de Brún: Yes, and I also get briefings from the Minister on the business that was discussed. However, I was unable to attend the December 2008 meeting or the Committee meeting here because I had to attend to other business for the European Parliament on those days.

485. Much of what happens on a yearly basis is bound up with the common fisheries policy. We could engage in discussions on the Green Paper on the reform of the common fisheries policy. The Assembly could usefully examine and engage on that also.

486. Mr Shannon: Yesterday, the all-party Assembly group on rural sustainability held a meeting at which Roseanna Cunningham MSP was the guest. She said that Scotland was examining the ways in which it could improve its relationship with Europe, and she provided an outline of how she thought that that could happen. Scotland is clearly well ahead of us in the way in which it projects that. Following on from Mr Elliott’s question, how can we influence or be involved in legislative change coming from Europe? If one gets it too early, it will be vague, and if one gets it too late, it will be a fait accompli.

487. Obviously, a role exists somewhere in between those two, and we must ensure that we hit it. Is that your role with us, or do you think that each of the Departments here — whether that is six or 10 — should have a champion? Would that contact be beneficial? What would be the best method for the Assembly to respond? We must ensure that we can influence legislative change before it is too late and becomes a fait accompli.

488. Ms de Brún: A number of interventions at different stages is probably the best method, particularly for an Assembly that has not engaged through the range of the process in the past. That could be done in variety of ways. The Commission, first of all, holds an open consultation at the Green Paper stage, so it would be worth the Assembly getting involved then. That, at least, would provide a framework for the later discussions. Sometimes, it is easy to immediately spot something, or sometimes, as Mr Shannon says, it is vague, but at least the basis for engagement at the later stage will have been formed.

489. The Department has engaged on the issue of agriculture for a long time, so that is reasonably straightforward. The Department has an official in the Office of the NI Executive in Brussels who is the point of contact. The MEPs engage. The farming organisations engage actively and have their own umbrella organisation for engagement. On other issues, it would be less straightforward. For example, we have just come out of a period of engagement with MEPs, the Office of the Executive in Brussels, the Commission, and the Parliament on the common agricultural policy (CAP) health check. That has laid down certain parameters that have been legislated for now. The rest will be taken forward in the next Parliament.

490. Therefore, it is important for the Committee or the Assembly to be able to engage with the farming organisations here and with MEPs and the Office of the Executive on what they consider to be the next stage — to be ready to discuss that and to bring forward their views. To tie that in with Tom Elliott’s previous question; for example, with regard to eels, the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society was strongly engaged with simply telling the European Commission about how it works, what it has done, how it meets, what the Commission was trying to achieve, and about how some of its proposals would impact on the society’s ability to meet its objectives. Often, it is simply a case of being engaged in that way. Although that had impact, it was, possibly, not as much as the society would have liked.

491. It is possible through MEPs. I was able to give reports to Joe Borg at the Commission. I was able to raise questions in the European Parliament, to talk to people in the Departments here and directly to people in the Commission. That must be ongoing at various stages of the proposal so that you are in a position to do more than shift commas and full stops at a late stage.

492. Ms Anderson: Thank you very much, Bairbre. It is nice to see you here.

493. You mentioned the European economic recovery plan, of which I have heard only recently. I do not know much about it. You said that it was launched in November 2008. Some of the groups and organisations that I deal with in Derry tell me about the difficulties and problems that they have in securing matched funding — which, I am sure, is the same for all Members when they deal with Departments. I have been told that there may be a mechanism under the European economic recovery plan by which those groups could go back to Departments and engage with them on that matter. I want to hear more about that. Is there a relationship between that and the open day that you mentioned, which will deal with regional responses to the economic crisis? It may be worth delving into what that open day will involve in order to provide members with a better understanding. They might want to consider it.

494. As regards cutting accountancy business for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), I had a meeting yesterday with Central Procurement Directorate to discuss SMEs and the social economy in Derry, and their difficulty in getting access to the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) for big procurement contracts. It explained how SMEs could be facilitated to develop that kind of understanding. I am sure that SMEs here would greatly appreciate that assistance in cutting down accountancy business.

495. The Chairman will probably tell me to stop. However, if he allows, I want to ask a third question.

496. The Chairperson: Other members have indicated that they want to ask questions.

497. Ms Anderson: In that case, those two questions will do. I will have an opportunity to talk to Bairbre later.

498. Mr Shannon: Surely, you can talk to her directly by phone.

499. Ms Anderson: Well, this is it. Behave yourself.

500. The Chairperson: Let us just keep the discussion moving.

501. Ms de Brún: The recovery plan is based on two key elements. The first is short-term measures to boost demand, save jobs and help restore confidence. The second is smart investment to yield higher growth and sustainable prosperity in the long term. Under smart investment, the recovery plan wants, for example, to provide further help for all SMEs, which includes removing the requirement on micro-enterprises for annual accounts and easing access to public-procurement. In that regard, I suggest that SMEs could and should address their needs, as you have mentioned.

502. Another recommendation is that steps should be taken to ensure that public authorities pay invoices within one month. Those are some of the points of the recovery plan that would build on the benefits of the Small Business Act for Europe.

503. For some time now I have been pushing for investment in energy-efficiency infrastructure in order to help sustain employment in the construction industry, save energy, improve efficiency and help to tackle fuel poverty. On the subject of protecting and creating jobs, I return to your previous question. The European Commission is going to propose that the criteria for applications to the European social fund support programme should be simplified and that advance payments should be stepped up from early 2009 so that member states have earlier access to up to €1·8 billion. The Commission wishes to refocus support on the most vulnerable, step up action to boost skills, and, where necessary, opt for full EC financing of projects during this period. The EU wishes to address those questions by looking at matched funding and access to other funding.

504. It is important to understand that although there is a particular difficulty in getting access to finance from banks, the Commission points out in the European economic recovery plan that it expects the European Investment Bank to continue lending. That is important for people to know. The annexes to volume 2 of the Commission’s legislative and work programme show the number of different pieces of legislative and non-legislative initiatives and communications that are scheduled to progress through it. One of those items deals with the economic recovery plan; another item deals specifically with cutting administrative burdens for small businesses.

505. Mrs Long: Thank you for the presentation; I apologise for arriving late. You mentioned your work on climate change and your willingness to brief Assembly Members. I was thinking that I should put you in touch with the Minister of the Environment.

506. A Member: You will be wasting your time.

507. Mrs Long: Are there formal opportunities for you to share information with the Assembly about your work and about what is coming up in European legislation, development and work programmes?

508. Ms de Brún: I would welcome formal opportunities. I welcomed the opportunity to talk to the Committee today. I was happy to meet some members of the Committee during their visit to Brussels, and I would like to be able to do so with other Committees and groupings in the Assembly. I work informally by way of meetings with civil servants, environmental groups and other groups that are part of the Climate Change Coalition, to which I give regular briefings. We have had several debates and discussions about what is happening in tackling climate change at international level. We have talked about the United Nations climate change conference and the road to Copenhagen and the need to find an international agreement on how to tackle climate change in future.

509. On wider environmental issues, I met waste management groups with whom I discussed the environmental legislation on the revision of the waste framework directive. I met economic development groups in the north and north-west to discuss cross-border co-operation and how that could be used to tackle particular geographic challenges here in the North. I was happy when I was able to persuade the influential Regional Development Committee of the European Parliament to visit the north and north-west to see that work.

510. Mostly, groupings approach me, or I approach them, outside the Assembly. That was the same with respect to the Peace report, when I engaged with the voluntary and community sector that had been so vital in doing that work. That was on my initiative. Sometimes, I meet with individual Assembly Members or civil servants on other occasions and at other events — for example, in the Long Gallery — as opposed to having a set time when I can brief Committees. I would find it valuable to build on that.

511. Mrs Long: We are examining options for more formal engagement and whether that would be beneficial. One of the questions that we have asked MEPs is whether they would welcome the development of procedures that would allow them to brief Committees on a more regular basis. One suggestion is that MEPs might brief this Committee, for example, to coincide with the European Commission’s legislative and work programme. Another option that we are considering is that MEPs would be brought in for consultation with this Committee and others when they deal with European issues. Alternatively, MEPs might be given the right to participate around the table in some of the discussions while such issues are dealt with in Committee, although they would not have voting rights on the issue, of course. Would such developments be helpful in formalising those discussions?

512. Ms de Brún: Yes, absolutely. At present, when I am at home, I come here on Mondays to meet with my party Assembly group in order to keep up to date with what is happening, and I meet with ministerial colleagues. I have made it clear that I am also happy to meet with other party groupings. I would particularly welcome a more formal approach that allowed me to attend Committees and participate in them.

513. It is ironic that I am invited to, and have the right to attend, Committees in the Dáil. I attend Committees in Leinster House, though I do not have voting rights there either. European issues are often dealt with on a cross-border basis, so it is interesting for me to do that. I would especially welcome the opportunity to meet with Committees here.

514. Mrs D Kelly: I welcome Bairbre to the Committee. In your reports, you refer to the Hamber and Kelly work on Peace III and how groups need to be up to speed on that work in order to take a more strategic direction. I am not familiar with that work. How do we inform society to adopt a position from which it may benefit from Peace III?

515. The media give little attention to European issues, except when the fishing or farming industries are affected. How can that be improved?

516. What is the current status of Peace III? Where is the hold-up? It is supposed to last from 2007 to 2013: we are now in 2009, and I wonder what is going on.

517. Ms de Brún: It is interesting that the European Union shows a lot of goodwill towards developments here at the moment. It is proud of the input it gave. That came through clearly, not only in the extensions of the Peace programme, but in the overwhelming support that the de Brún report, ‘The Evaluation of the Peace Programme and Strategies for the Future’ received when I brought it forward in the European Parliament, and in the reaction of the European Economic and Social Committee when Jane Morrice made her report to that body.

518. The Assembly should use those reports as a basis for discussions and to engage with people who have been part of the Peace programmes here. Those people have gained valuable experience of Peace III, and they could provide useful advice for the future.

519. As part of the Committee Stage for my report, the European Parliament held a hearing, or information session, to which it invited Pat Colgan from the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), the Community Relations Council and a representative from one of the grass-roots projects — the cross-cultural co-operation project between Ballymacarret and Ballybofey — that did sterling work on the ground.

520. At the hearing, the work of Kelly and Hamber was discussed. They envisage peace building and reconciliation as a long-term process that goes far beyond community relations and into considerations of economic and structural changes, cultural questions and how people see and define their futures.

521. With regard to the situation concerning Peace III, I see a problem with the delay between measures passing through the European institutions and the debate taking place at the implementation stage. Often, people do not realise that something is an EU issue until it has passed through its institutions and is firmly in the local arena. Therefore, when groups come to me with queries — and there are many queries concerning Peace III, its implementation, whether community organisations’ roles are recognised, and whether those organisations can have the same level of input that they had to Peace I and Peace II — they may discover that the decision they are seeking lies with the Assembly, the Executive or local government, rather than with the EU institutions. In fact, much of the Peace programme is implemented at local government level.

522. Nevertheless, it is important that groups are aware that the EU Commission will be involved in a mid-term review of the Peace programme. Therefore groups will be able to go to SEUPB, the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Committee for Finance and Personnel, or directly to the EU Commission in order to inform the review about their experiences.

523. Mr Molloy: Mr Chairman, I apologise to the Committee and to Bairbre for being late; I was held up at a meeting with the Speaker.

524. We have been asking MEPs about the role that the Assembly can play in, and how it might develop a better working relationship with the European Union. As Tom Elliott said, although we often hear about European directives, it is the Governments that make up the European Union that create those directives. Given that situation, how much influence can we have?

525. Moreover, would secondments from the Assembly be a more effective way for the Assembly to develop a better relationship with the European Union than making direct contact through an Assembly office in Europe and having MEPs address Assembly Committees?

526. Ms de Brún: My view is that Assembly engagement must reach a much higher level before the Assembly would require, or benefit from, a separate office of its own. Committees can engage directly with the task force report that came out in April 2008. That report is public and contains several recommendations. If Committees have not directly engaged with people outside of the Assembly to discuss those recommendations, they would gain little from having an office in Brussels. I do not know if I am making myself clear.

527. This Committee is different because it oversees the work of OFMDFM. This Committee, therefore, may want to consider the response to the task force report and the work of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in dealing with it. However, there is no reason for other Committees — which deal with economic development, culture, the environment, and so on —to have an office if they are not already engaging with the recommendations on EU issues. It is too early for a Committee to benefit from having an office in Brussels if it is not already engaging with organisations that deal with EU issues on a day-to-day basis.

528. An office allows a message to be put across and provides a structured way of engaging with people throughout the European Union. However, a Committee must first decide how much it wants to have those conversations: what priority such engagement has in its work programme and what level of resources can be given to it. When those questions have been answered, a Committee can then decide whether it wants to have an office in Brussels to deal with EU issues.

529. The European Union is very complex precisely because it is not solely the Commission, or the Parliament, or the Governments that make the decisions. They do not always make the decisions in the same mix, but they all take part in the decision-making process. Scotland, for example, has a long history of much higher levels of direct engagement than we have. However, the Scottish Parliament’s office in Brussels was established only quite recently. Furthermore, it is still unclear how much added value that office provides over and above the work of Scottish Government EU Office or the Scotland Europa office, which deals with other Scottish organisations that interact with the European Union.

530. The Chairperson: Thank you very much your presentation. You may contact us with any other information that you wish to provide and, similarly, we will contact you if we have any further queries. We will publish a report at some stage and ensure that you get a copy of it. Thank you very much indeed.

11 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Ms Evelyn Cummins
Dr Paul Geddis
Mr John McMillen

Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

531. The Chairperson: I welcome Evelyn Cummins, Paul Geddis and John McMillen from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, who will brief the Committee on the Executive’s response to the Barroso task force report. Good afternoon, you are very welcome. You may wish to make an opening presentation, and then make yourselves available to answer questions.

532. Mr John McMillen (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): Thank you. We will make just a couple of remarks; we do not need to take up too much of the Committee’s time. The Committee has already received a copy of the Executive’s response, so I will not go into the detail of that, but we will take questions on it. I will provide a flavour of how the work is progressing.

533. The Barroso task force report was launched in April 2008, and since then OFMDFM and Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) officials have been drawing together a response, which is now in the draft Executive plan. We have linked the action plan to the European strategy, ‘Taking our place in Europe’, in order to provide an implementation plan for that strategy — so we are building on that piece of work. In many ways, the plan is a proof of concept to establish our European priorities, and is an evolving toolkit that can be used to measure how we are meeting our strategic objectives in Europe.

534. Since the task force’s launch, Departments have been active in pursuing the policies and programmes of, and in engaging with key functionaries in, the Commission services during the development period for the draft action plan. The Executive’s draft action plan covers the period up to the end of the 2008-09 business year, and, for the first time, it sets out our European priorities. It is a rolling plan, which will be updated annually. It will be developed in the coming years, so further opportunities will be available for comment.

535. In parallel, we have established a monitoring and reporting framework, which is designed to mainstream European engagement into Departments’ normal business cycles. Thus, we shall begin mainstreaming European activities in April.

536. Finally, the plan has a single, strategic, overarching aim. The task force report is based on five key themes: to promote our interests in the European Union; to access EU funding; to raise our positive profile throughout Europe; to raise awareness and encourage participation in European matters by our own people; and to share our experience of building peace and of conflict resolution in a divided society with Europe and beyond.

537. I am now happy to take questions.

538. Mrs D Kelly: Unfortunately, I must attend another meeting this afternoon, so I will be unable to stay for the entire meeting.

539. Thank you for your draft action plan, but I found it very disappointing. It was a long-awaited response to the Barroso task force’s report, but I wonder why there was such a lengthy delay in its publication. It was presented in April 2008, amid great fanfare over our engaging with Europe and our asking Europe to help the new devolved Administration in Northern Ireland to settle. It is disappointing that the Executive’s draft action plan’s publication has taken so long, and it does not tackle many of the report’s leads.

540. You have chosen to respond to the task force in a format that keeps with the existing strategy, rather than with anything that is a response to the task force’s recommendations. For example, the structure differs from the task force report, which considers each of the policy areas in which Europe is of relevance, such as agriculture and rural development or employment and social policy, and it makes recommendations and suggestions on each. However, the Executive’s response does not use the same format, which makes it very difficult to link the two documents.

541. In your response, you added two additional actions, which are to access EU funding and to share Northern Ireland’s experience of peace-building. Given the current global economic downturn, surely now is the time to maximise the goodwill that there is towards Northern Ireland in Europe and to maximise any economic and social opportunities that are available to us. I do not feel that you have grasped that in the draft action plan. Furthermore, there is no clear direction of any quick wins, and we really need quick wins in order to build confidence. Overall, I found the draft action plan to be very disappointing.

542. The Chairperson: Do you wish to respond to any element of what Mrs Kelly said?

543. Mr McMillen: I note your disappointment, and I take on board the point about how the two formats do not match. I am sure that the Committee will share its feelings as we proceed.

544. Much cross-departmental work was required in order to pull together the draft action plan, and that took some time. We also liaised with officials in Europe. Finally, a couple of political points required clearance by Ministers, and that also delayed the document’s publication.

545. Mr Shannon: As a result of the Committee’s consideration of EU issues, we are having more contact with you now than we have had over the years. Nonetheless, it is nice to see you all here.

546. My question concerns departmental involvement in European issues. Have you had any direct contact with Departments? For example, has anyone been identified to make contact with you, or have you made any attempt to try to make contact with Departments? Do all Departments have a European unit that you can contact, or an official with responsibility for European issues? If not, would that be beneficial?

547. Mr McMillen: A Barroso task force working group, which the junior Ministers chair, and on which sits a grade 3 official from every Department, has been set up to take forward our response to the report. Therefore, there is very senior representation on EU issues, and we use those officials as the leads for all departmental responses. They act as points of contact on European matters.

548. Departments that have been recipients of funding in the past tend to have European units. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development have such units, but not all Departments do.

549. Mr Shannon: Would it be beneficial to have a contact in each Department?

550. Mr McMillen: The contact is there, but it is fair to say that some Departments have a much more European-oriented slant to them than others. Part of the challenge in picking up the task force report is to convince others of the benefits of engagement with Europe. In many ways, it is a long-term engagement.

551. Mrs Kelly asked about quick wins, but it is sometimes about creating an association and a relationship with Europe and about finding out what is coming down the tracks so that the opportunities can be taken as they arise. Some Departments have not been as forthright as others in that regard.

552. Mr Shannon: That reply indicates that there is not enough contact with Departments, or at least that there is not sufficient or ample contact. We hope to highlight where those deficiencies lie through our inquiry. That may be one such deficiency. There is a children’s champion in each Department, so should there be a European champion as well? I suggest that there should be. If we are to learn anything from our inquiry, it will be from what you tell us about how the system is not working correctly. If the system falls down owing to insufficient contact with Europe, the Committee needs to know that.

553. Ms Evelyn Cummins (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): I am based largely in Brussels, and I have perceived quite a lot of activity and engagement between the launch of the task force and the delivery last April of its report. Indeed, I have seen progress on several fronts that reflect the report’s recommendations.

554. Some of the main themes to consider that were recommended in the task force’s report include: general engagement; more staff secondments, more participation in competitive funding programmes, which reflects one of the points that Mr Shannon raised; and general improved engagement in the European policy process. Despite the fact that we do not yet have an agreed response, I can confidently report that progress has been made on those fronts, and we could give a number of examples. When the Committee sees the results, I think that the work that has been done on those themes will be well reflected. Therefore, although we do not have an agreed report, we have made a great deal of progress. That is a plus point to what has been initiated.

555. Visits to the European institutions by Ministers and officials, from Departments and public-sector agencies alike, have also increased significantly over the past year.

556. Mr Shannon: Edwin Poots said in the previous evidence session that Europe is all about networking. In all the potential visits to which you referred, Evelyn, is it not important to have continuity of contact, with the same people doing the networking? The European Union appears to work by a system of networking, rather than by deciding what is right and what is wrong.

557. Ms Cummins: That is inherent in what the task force recommended, and I hope that we will be explicit in our response that that building of working relationships is the way in which for us to exert more influence on European policy.

558. Mr Spratt: Thank you for appearing before the Committee. Conflict resolution is one of the areas identified in the task force’s report. Indeed, it is unique to Northern Ireland. What plans are there to promote other unique areas of action, such as e-health solutions, R&D issues, which I raised with you before, and skills issues?

559. Ms Cummins: As far as the R&D issues are concerned, there has been a considerable increase in bidding on the research and innovation side. Invest NI has decided to appoint an additional member of staff to work in Brussels, specifically to develop those R&D opportunities. Moreover, the director-general in the Research Directorate-General has offered to accommodate that secondee in the initial stages, in order to help us best compete for available funding.

560. Mr McMillen: Representatives from the institutions here actively participated at European open days in Brussels, during which they shared their experiences, both on health issues and on academia. That provided them with a large showcase in which to do so. The theme was the sharing of experiences, skills and nuggets of information. It was not simply about conflict transformation but about sharing those skills.

561. Dr Paul Geddis (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): The team from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that leads the European Centre for Connected Health gave a presentation to the Barroso task force working group, which is chaired by the junior Ministers, right at the outset of the process. That team was involved at a very early stage, and it has followed up on its initial work by meeting relevant parties in Brussels. It has met the Research Directorate-General to identify how it might better tap into, in particular, European funding streams. Much of that work is ongoing and is captured in the main body of the Executive’s draft action plan.

562. Mr Spratt: We have heard from a number of groups and individuals interested in European issues. What plans are there to engage with stakeholders from outside the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, particularly after the action plan is completed?

563. Mr McMillen: It is an ongoing piece of work. Ministers are conscious that they need to engage wider civil society and stakeholders — in particular, local government — on European issues. Belfast City Council is engaged prominently in Europe. Thus far, engagement has been done through the formal channels of the Committee. Ministers met MEPs yesterday to inform them on the draft action plan. Once the action plan has passed through the Executive, the intention is to roll it out to other stakeholder groups, and to get those groups on board as we develop the plan next year and beyond.

564. Mr Elliott: Thank you for your information. My main question is: what is new? What is in the draft action plan that we would not otherwise be doing? I do not see anything in it that the Departments or the Executive should not already be doing.

565. Mr McMillen: That is a fair point. However, we should ask whether we were doing what we should have been doing. Over the years, much of our work had become detached from Europe. Therefore, the task force injected pace into that and identified where the gaps were. The Barroso task force did that by conducting a stocktake of where similar regions were engaged and where gaps existed in that engagement. As everyone has suggested, since its publication, the task force report has stimulated people to examine other areas and has encouraged them to get much more. As Mr Shannon said, it is about networking, cultivating relationships and getting involved, and that is starting to evolve and happen.

566. Ms Cummins: I agree. In announcing the initiative, the European Commission and, indeed, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister were mindful of the fact that the current financial-perspective period runs out in 2013 and that, over many years, Northern Ireland has benefited from a range of structural and Peace funding. Inevitably, that has already diminished and will continue to do so. The action plan will gear us up to compete for other already-available opportunities. I agree that those opportunities are already available, but we may not make as much use of them as we could because we have had access to other structural funding in recent years. The action plan is a means of getting us into a different way of working.

567. Mr Elliott: Are we placing too much emphasis on that entire process? Are we almost classifying it is a renewal of our European perspective? Are we expecting too much from it?

568. Ms Cummins: I am not sure whether that question is for us or for you to answer, Mr Elliott. The European Commission, in its analysis, has given an accurate assessment of Northern Ireland’s European participation. It has also pointed us in the direction of certain opportunities in areas in which we will be able to compete. It is a challenge, but I am not sure whether anyone is of the view that it is too much of a challenge for the appropriate organisations to rise to.

569. Mr Elliott: Therefore, what is next? It has taken quite a while to get to this stage, and I want to see a programme of work from this point on.

570. Mr McMillen: As you are aware, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development were in Brussels yesterday, where they met with the UK Permanent Representation to Brussels (UKRep), the Irish Permanent Representation to Brussels and MEPs about taking forward the action plan. They picked up some information at that meeting, which they will bring back. Taking on board the Committee’s, and others’, comments, the expectation is that we will have a paper for the Executive to endorse some time in March. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister will return to Brussels in late March or early April, where they will present President Barroso with the initial response on the first year’s performance. We will then engage Departments to start rolling out the plan into 2009-2010. In late May or early June, the Ministers will, hopefully, return to Brussels with that plan and try to engage with the new European Commission, in order to retain continuity.

571. During that period, officials will go to Brussels to engage with their counterparts in the Commission to build up what will become a long-term relationship and to start to get an idea of what the programme is working for in Brussels. During the compilation of the task force report, European officials paid a very successful to Belfast. The intention is to repeat that in the autumn, in order to find out what their work plan is for future years, and we can provide the Committee with details of that work plan.

572. The Chairperson: OFMDFM is the lead Department in this; however, it is a question of the carrot and the stick as to whether it can really ensure that the various Northern Ireland Departments involved will undertake the work and the contact, and roll out the programme of work in line with Europe. Are you satisfied that OFMDFM is satisfied that it has the necessary “stick" to ensure that that happens?

573. Mr McMillen: We will monitor the performance of the Departments and ask them quarterly, as part of the normal budgetary monitoring cycle, to update their action plans and tell us what they have achieved. For the Ministers in OFMDFM, we shall produce a six-monthly report, which I assume they will take to the Executive, who can use it as a mechanism to check what progress is being made. Obviously, it is up to individual Ministers to decide how they react to that.

574. The Chairperson: Therefore, you are marking the homework?

575. Mr McMillen: We are informing Ministers of what the Departments are telling us about their progress.

576. The Chairperson: They are marking the homework?

577. Ms Anderson: Why are some of the recommendations that the task force made, such as the PROGRESS programme, not included in the draft action plan? Many of the five policy areas that the PROGRESS programme covers are central to OFMDFM policy, yet it has not been included. As the report states, the programme deals with:

“employment, social inclusion and protection, working conditions, gender equality and anti-discrimination."

578. It is amazing that that has not been included in the draft action plan.

579. Dr Geddis: That is a fair point. Consideration was given to including that programme, but the responsibility for including it came down to a decision between the policy leads in OFMDFM and in the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), which was the lead Department on that. On the basis of advice that we received from the Department for Employment and Learning, that programme was not included in the draft action plan.

580. Ms Anderson: However, not all those areas are located in DEL, particularly gender equality, anti-discrimination and social inclusion. Many strategic decisions made in those areas are under OFMDFM’s remit.

581. Dr Geddis: Yes, I agree with that. However, a discussion took place between the OFMDFM policy leads and the DEL policy leads, and we acted on the advice that we received. Those issues lie within an area of policy for which the European division is not directly responsible, so we had to accept the advice that we were given.

582. We perform an overarching, co-ordinating function on the action plan. Our role is to secure content for inclusion from other Departments and from OFMDFM.

583. Ms Cummins: I wish to add a general point about what was responded to and what has not featured to date in the draft action plan. When the European Commission was drafting the task force report, it did not expect Northern Ireland to respond to every single recommendation. It was expected that Northern Ireland would prioritise what would be in its best interests and what it felt that it had the capacity to do.

584. I am not saying that one particular measure is more important than another. As Paul said, the report was relayed to individual Departments for them to respond. It is possible that something that was not picked up and planned for in the first bite could be picked up as the programme advances.

585. Ms Anderson: Has €743 million been dedicated to the PROGRESS programme? It begs the question about the impact that the task force has had on our approach to Europe if that has either not been picked up on or, regardless of the kind of engagement that has occurred, it has been decided that that is not an issue for inclusion in the action plan.

586. Dr Geddis: That is fair comment. I think that this point was made earlier, but the only comment that I will add is that Europe is very much seen as an add-on in some policy areas. It is not seen as part of an integral whole. That is a cultural difference that exists in some of the Northern Ireland Departments.

587. Ms Anderson: Has it exposed our disconnect from Europe and the need for there to be greater connectivity?

588. Dr Geddis: Yes. From a European perspective, we try to encourage policy integration at local, regional, national and European levels, and also to ensure that that stretches horizontally. However, there is a disjoint that has historical connotations.

589. Mr McElduff: To follow on from Dolores Kelly’s points, is it the case that the developing action plan will take the place of the existing strategy that is due to be reviewed?

590. Is the argument being made that greater investment should be being made in the Executive’s office in Brussels so that advantage can be taken of opportunities?

591. Ms Cummins: The current strategy, titled ‘Taking Our Place in Europe’, was published during direct rule and was intended to cover the period 2006-2010. It was intended to provide a very high-level overview of European engagement and of how the various Northern Ireland players could contribute to, and benefit from, that.

592. In a sense, that is still a document from which we draw our objectives. However, the task force gives us a much more detailed, wide-ranging and more specific set of recommendations. That will become our strategy for European engagement in future years. We will carry forward the principles of the European strategy. In time, one will replace the other, but the announcement of the task force has given that process a considerable boost.

593. Mr McMillen: The Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels is operated by a small team, which works very hard to represent Northern Ireland. However, as the Committee well knows, resources in the Department are very much restrained. Therefore, it is about how we deploy those resources. To try to address that, Ministers are prioritising international relations, both inside and outside Europe. It is not only down to OFMDFM — other Departments should consider whether they should invest in putting people in Brussels. There is already representation from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and from Invest Northern Ireland. That has proved to be very beneficial, and we have spare capacity for representation from other Departments if they thought about posting someone to Brussels.

594. Ms Cummins: We are also working with our colleagues in the Department of Finance and Personnel to find different means of encouraging people to take up short-term and medium-term secondments to Europe. That also helps the wider process of European policy, which is a day-to-day part of Government business.

595. Mrs Long: Thank you for your presentation. The action plan and response are still in draft form, but several actions mentioned are timelined to have already happened or to be happening. I seek reassurance that the actions that should have happened have happened or are happening, despite the fact that the action plan is still in draft format.

596. Mr McMillen: I assure you that many of the actions that are timelined for completion in 2008-09 have been advanced by Departments. In January, I wrote to Departments to ask them for an update on the state of play as at December 2008 so that we could get a feel for the situation. I will ask for a final report at the end of the financial year.

597. As Evelyn said, there have been successes so far this year, and things have happened that would not have happened otherwise.

598. Mrs Long: Further to Tom Elliott’s comments, on reading the draft action plan, one is tempted to think that it is old wine in new bottles — there is little that is new in it. Given that the action plan is almost replacing the previous strategy, would it not have been helpful to have included the baseline information that arose from the previous strategy and the review of activity around that? That would have provided us with a starting point from which we could have judged whether the response to the Barroso task force report had made any tangible difference, and people would have been able to see what additionality had been provided by the exercise.

599. Ms Cummins: We are using the task force report, which has analysed participation, as the baseline on which to judge our progress and success.

600. The strategy, ‘Taking our Place in Europe’, was subjected to a prolonged and widespread consultation before it was published. That was before my time, so I will call on Dr Geddis to help me with any detail. I do not recollect there being a baseline assessment; rather, it was concerned with bringing together a range of consultees who may have had an interest in European affairs, and setting out a high-level strategy from that. The Barroso task force’s plan and assessment are more detailed.

601. Dr Geddis: That is correct. The strategy was a high-level, overarching document that was designed to encourage regional engagement in Europe at regional and local government levels and in civil society. As it was published during direct rule, there was no action plan to support that strategy. However, that had always been the intention. The Barroso stocktake provided the baseline, and the Executive’s draft action plan that is before you provides the action plan that is effectively implementing, albeit belatedly, ‘Taking Our Place in Europe’.

602. Mr Moutray: Are there any guarantees that people who take up secondments to Europe will be able to use the knowledge gained when they return to their posts?

603. Ms Cummins: I do not have personal experience of that, because I have not come back yet. However, I have learnt from the experiences of others. As there are so few people from Northern Ireland working in Brussels at any given time, it is difficult to have a masterplan for that. In conjunction with the parent Department and colleagues in central personnel group (CPG) in the Department of Finance and Personnel, we try to ensure that best efforts are made to accommodate each individual’s preferences. When they return, we try to allocate individuals to posts in which they can use their skills and experience and ensure that the Department requires those particular skills and experience.

604. Currently, we have three short-term secondments, or, as they are known, stagiaires. One is seconded to the cabinet of Commissioner Danuta Hübner, who is the commissioner who is overseeing the taskforce; a young man from DEL is seconded to the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities; and a young man from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) has been seconded to Eurostat in Luxembourg.

605. Those people will tend to return to their original Departments. They are working in areas that relate specifically to their parent Departments, and, therefore, the system works. I am not trying to present the process as easy and simple, because we have to think about, and work at, each case.

606. The Chairperson: In an earlier evidence session on European issues, the Committee heard a suggestion that a transfer to Europe is unattractive to staff because it is inconvenient, both for travel and family reasons, and because of the stifling effect that a transfer could have on an individual’s career. For example, a person who accepts a transfer to Europe is considered to be in the wilderness and considered unable to evolve their career prospects properly. Is that an accepted fact? Is work under way to address that concern?

607. Ms Cummins: The perception of being forgotten after a transfer to Europe is more keenly experienced by UK civil servants, who must compete to find a post when they return from Europe. We are small enough to remember people and to make efforts to accommodate them.

608. I am aware of very few examples in which a transfer to Europe has harmed a person’s career. In fact, it has been a good step to make. However, several programmes are under way, or are being prepared, to address that matter, one of which is Centre for Applied Learning’s newly activated European training programme. The programme has two stages to it, the first of which involves learning about European institutions, legal issues, and so on — all that one need to know about Europe. The second stage comprises a trip to visit and study the various institutions and to talk to employees there. The idea is to allow people to sample working in Europe.

609. As you said, people’s personal lives vary, and, for many reasons — including for family reasons — it is not always the right time to take a secondment. However, the programme allows people to gain information and, perhaps, plan for a transfer at some time in the future. Furthermore, there is a proposal to offer short-term secondments — on a study-type programme — to Brussels, and that is intended to have the same result.

610. The Chairperson: Thank you for your attendance and for the information that you have provided to the Committee. The Committee will respond formally to OFMDFM, and I hope to submit that response after next week’s Committee meeting.

611. The Committee Clerk and her colleagues will draft a reply, based on the points that have been raised, for consideration at next week’s meeting. Thereafter, we will report to the Department. Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

11 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Edwin Poots

Committee of the Regions

612. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): Good afternoon, Mr Poots. You are not exactly a stranger to the Building, or, indeed, to this Committee, in its previous form. You are very welcome, and thank you for joining us. As you know, the Committee is conducting an inquiry into European issues and how the Assembly can better work with, and relate to, the European Union. As a member of the Committee of the Regions, you have an insight into that issue. It would be helpful if you would make an opening statement and take questions afterwards.

613. Mr Edwin Poots (Committee of the Regions): I emailed a submission to the Committee, which I assume it has received.

614. The Chairperson: We received that.

615. Mr Poots: I thank the Committee for its invitation. I know that you have big shoes to fill as Chairperson.

616. The Chairperson: It is very modest of you to say so.

617. Mr Poots: I was referring to Gregory Campbell’s time chairing the Committee, not mine. [Laughter.] You have a much easier job than I had, because the First Minister had a lot more to keep an eye on then.

618. On the European scene, the Committee of the Regions is below the European Parliament and the European Commission in the pecking order. Its members are appointed from local governments throughout the European Union. It is designed to seek out grass roots opinion and be the conduit through which Brussels can consult with people on the ground.

619. The Committee of the Regions meets in plenary session six times a year. It has six subcommittees, which also meet approximately six times a year in order to examine various European Union policies and give their opinions on them. The subcommittees appoint rapporteurs to produce reports on issues such as the common agricultural policy (CAP) health check or the Lisbon Treaty. Those reports are presented to the full plenary sessions of the Committee of the Regions and are voted on by its members.

620. The role of the rapporteur is quite important. To be appointed as a rapporteur for a particular report puts that individual in a strong position to promote the interests of his or her region. The European Commission is supposed to take account of the reports of the Committee of the Regions, and most plenary sessions of the Committee are attended by commissioners, who will update members on their area of work.

621. In my view, power in Brussels is exercised from the top-down, as opposed to the bottom-up. In a sense, the European Parliament is a contrived political entity, and, as a consequence, it is unlike any other normal parliamentary or political process. There are several dominant regions, which are concentrated in central Europe around the Franco-German axis. As a result, it is very difficult for a particular regional point of view to have an influence; it is like being a very small fish in a very large pond.

622. Nonetheless, there are issues on which influence can be brought to bear. The common agricultural policy health check was recently dealt with by the Committee on Development (DEVE), and, ultimately, in the Committee’s plenary session. A vote on the export refunds took place in October 2008, which we won by about eight votes. Subsequently, the European Commission decided to re-introduce export refunds. The rapporteur had actually not recommended the re-introduction of export refunds. That was a critical issue for the people of Northern Ireland, so it was useful to be there and have a modest input into that issue.

623. However, we hope that the Committee of the Regions exerts some influence in regard to such issues. For instance, Commissioner Fischer Boel identified that the Committee supported change, and that may have had a bearing on her decision to support the rate of export refunds, which will help Northern Ireland’s dairy industry, if not immediately, over the next few months. Those are the types of issues with which the Committee deals.

624. The Committee of the Regions contains two appointees from Northern Ireland, with two substitutes. The positions are currently held by the two largest parties, which has been the case for a long time. I followed George Savage, and Sir Reg Empey and Dermot Nesbitt were also members.

625. That is a brief outline of our work. I am happy to take questions.

626. The Chairperson: Thank you. That was very useful and informative.

627. Are there any mechanisms that Departments here could provide — in respect of policies and events — to improve the flow of information that would help in your work as a member or the work of other Northern Ireland representatives who are engaged in Europe?

628. Mr Poots: I receive briefings from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) on the relevant issues. If a matter that is of particular interest to a Northern Ireland Department is to be raised in a DEVE meeting or in a European Parliament plenary session, that Department channels its views through OFMDFM, which works satisfactorily.

629. Ms Anderson: What opportunities are there for members of the Committee of the Regions to work with other regions on common issues? Yesterday, the First and deputy First Ministers were in Brussels, along with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. That may have displayed a joined-up approach to issues that affect here. However, as a former Minister, do you believe that the Executive take a strategic approach to Europe?

630. Mr Poots: I am not sure that I can make a judgement on the last question, but I will come to it in a moment.

631. What was the first question?

632. Ms Anderson: It was about the opportunities that members of the Committee of the Regions have to work with other regions on common issues.

633. Mr Poots: Interestingly, I recently received an email from a French member of the Committee of the Regions who is very concerned about the state of the car industry. That member wants to establish an international working group on the downturn that the car industry is experiencing in many parts of Europe. That is an example of a recent issue on which members want to get together to draw up some recommendations.

634. On the issue of how the Executive operate in Brussels — networking is of crucial importance. It is about getting to know people, and, I believe, the Executive have a lot to learn from the approach adopted by the Irish many years ago. At that time, the Republic sent the best of its civil servants to Europe. They delivered results because they were capable of networking and had the intellectual ability to advance their case. Consequently, Ireland was one of the biggest net beneficiaries of European funding for many years thereafter.

635. When I was Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre, as it was then known, we carried out some of the same work that you are now doing. Among the issues that were considered at that time was the secondment of key people in the Civil Service to Brussels — including to offices not associated with Northern Ireland.

636. Although the money was coming out of the Northern Ireland block budget, those people could, nonetheless, be in areas in which they can influence policy in Brussels and do something that is of benefit to the people of Northern Ireland.

637. There are measures that the Executive could take to further promote Northern Ireland. As a region, Northern Ireland probably punches above its weight in Brussels, and the fact that the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development were out in Europe about a range of issues — including one that is affecting Northern Ireland — demonstrates a strong commitment by the Executive to seek to get as much as they can from Brussels. That kind of work, in which senior Ministers network with the commissioners for the wider benefit of Northern Ireland, must continue. The commissioners are the people who are the position to make decisions and to deliver.

638. Mr Moutray: A few weeks ago, Sean Neeson of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe gave evidence to this Committee. What relation, if any, is there between the Committee of the Regions and that body? Furthermore, do you have interaction with the three MEPs from Ulster?

639. Mr Poots: No. I might previously have had interaction with one of the MEPs, but, for some reason, that seems to have dried up.

640. The Chairperson: I seem to recall the reason for that. [Laughter.]

641. Mr Elliott: Does Bairbre de Brún not talk to you now?

642. Mr Poots: She probably would.

643. A great amount of interactivity has never taken place between the MEPs and Committee of the Regions, mainly because the plenary sessions of the European Parliament and those of the Committee of the Regions do not take place at the same time. The European Parliament normally meets in Strasbourg because the Committee of the Regions normally uses the European Parliament building in Brussels. The two events are scheduled to keep each of those bodies apart, so there is not much interaction other than at a local level in Northern Ireland.

644. The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe meets at a completely different time from the Committee of the Regions, so I never see Sean Neeson in Brussels.

645. The Committee of the Regions interacts with the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. That is beneficial, as are the papers that that office provides. I am not sure how much the MEPs work with that office, but, ultimately, one will get only as much out of something as one puts in.

646. The other area in which interaction is important is with the UKReps. They have strong influence, not so much with the Committee of the Regions, but with the MEPs. That important area should be fully harnessed and gain the full support of MEPs.

647. Ultimately, Brussels is about networking and about getting to know the right people in the right positions and influencing those people to make decisions that are to the benefit of Northern Ireland. It does not matter how often representatives are in Brussels; if they are not working and co-operating with people, it has no significant benefit to Northern Ireland.

648. Mr Shannon: You are back on your old hunting ground, Edwin. You will recall being here on other occasions.

649. You mentioned that networking was the key to what you do. If that is taken to its conclusion, your work is a case of not what you know, but of who you know. How do you feel that the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels could improve its contact and relationship with the Assembly in order to be advantageous to Members so that we know what is going on?

650. Do you see any potential value in visits or secondments from the Assembly to Europe?

651. Mr Poots: Any visits must be focused, and qualitative meetings must be established before going out to Europe. There is no point looking at a lot of offices and buildings and not having the right people to see.

652. I said already that it would be useful for Northern Ireland to have the right people seconded to Brussels so that they can get to know people in key places, tell the Northern Ireland story and find out where Northern Ireland could benefit from decisions taken in Brussels. After all, approximately 60% of our primary legislation emanates from Brussels.

653. Much of our national Government policy is based on what happens in the south of England, as that is where most of the money is generated. However, there are many more rural areas in the north of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which rely more heavily on agriculture in the first instance, and also rural-based businesses. Our national Government do not reflect that situation, as it is not necessarily in their interest to do so.

654. Therefore, it is important for the regions of the United Kingdom to work together closely. A committee was established between the chairpersons of the European committees, the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. However, I am not sure whether that committee still exists. Nevertheless, it is important for the regional Governments to work together to try to exert peer pressure on the national Government to represent the views of those regions. When they get together, they will have more strength than individual regions.

655. Mr Shannon: Last week, when we visited the Scottish Parliament — although there are dozens and dozens of issues — we learned that it was focusing on four areas. Are you suggesting that the Assembly should focus on two, three or perhaps four themes, and deliver on those?

656. Mr Poots: Ultimately, what is beneficial to London is not necessarily beneficial to the folk in Northern Ireland.

657. Mrs D Kelly: Yes; 10 out of 10.

658. Ms Anderson: Well said, Edwin. [Laughter.]

659. The Chairperson: Order, please.

660. Mr Poots: We have a much stronger rural background and rural economy. Some 8% of our economy is dependent on agriculture, while in the rest of the UK, the figure is less than 2%. Obviously, that is a much greater issue for us than it is for Hilary Benn and his colleagues in Westminster. Equally, it is as big an issue for people in Scotland, Wales and the north of England. We are not alone, and, if we can get together with our colleagues, we will have a greater influence on national policy by providing greater pressure as a group of regions.

661. Mr Shannon: The common fisheries policy is coming up for review in 2013. Have you had any contact with the fishing agencies as to how we might influence some of the changes that will happen in 2013? Have you covered that issue in the Committee of the Regions, and if not, would it be a good idea? The Scottish Parliament is examining that matter and, no doubt, the National Assembly for Wales will do the same. It is important that we are included in the process of influencing change for 2013.

662. Mr Poots: Absolutely. The last common fisheries policy was damaging to Northern Ireland. I am glad that you are representing the interests of South Down as well as Strangford.

663. Mr Shannon: I represent all the people who are involved in fishing.

664. Mrs D Kelly: I thank Edwin for his presentation. Other members have referred to the legislative work programme for the year ahead. Are there any matters that you want to draw to our attention, or any issues that will have a particular impact on Northern Ireland?

665. Mr Poots: Whatever flows from the Lisbon Treaty will be critical, and there are key issues about the adoption of the treaty. Were it to be adopted in its current form, it would weaken the power of member states and centralise power further, and I would have difficulty with that. If the treaty is ratified, life thereafter will become considerably more difficult for people in the regions who want to have an influence. Therefore, people throughout the EU regions should be focusing their efforts on ensuring that that does not happen.

666. The Republic of Ireland voted against the treaty, so there is likely to be a second vote there. If Brussels does not get its way the first time round, it generally forces, or coerces, Governments to hold repeat referendums until it gets the result that it wants. I will be watching that space.

667. I would have liked us folk in the United Kingdom to have had an opportunity to vote, as was originally promised by Gordon Brown.

668. Mrs D Kelly: It will come as no surprise to members that the SDLP is the only pro-European party in the North, and the Lisbon Treaty has other grounds on which to recommend it.

669. The Chairperson: Let us try to focus on European matters.

670. Mrs D Kelly: A few weeks ago, the European Central Bank announced a financial assistance scheme. Are there any programmes that might help our indigenous small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)?

671. Mr Poots: The Committee of the Regions has not discussed that matter. Therefore, I have no specific knowledge about such programmes. Perhaps the next set of witnesses, who are sitting behind me, will be able to assist you. At least they will have had an early warning about the question.

672. Mr McElduff: Have you witnessed any good examples of another region benefiting from the work of a rapporteur? Furthermore, have you thought of a theme by which you might bid for rapporteur work?

673. Mr Poots: I have talked to colleagues about that. To be honest, it is easier to get rapporteur work if one is a member of a group. Presently, I am an independent. Groups are able to bid for rapporteur work, and I have indicated to some groups that I have a particular interest in doing something relating to agriculture. I hope that an appropriate opportunity to do so will arise. Several groups are sympathetic to my wishes, but I will have to wait to see what happens. As I said, it is easier for a member of a group to get work; however, one must be a member of that group, and that would not necessarily help my case. Obviously, there are a number of groups in the European Parliament, and they are represented by members of political parties on the Committee of the Regions.

674. Groups are hugely diverse. For example, Jim Nicholson is a member of the EPP-EP Group — the Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) and European Democrats, which has 272 members, so it is difficult for a single member to significantly influence the group’s decisions. Similarly, it is difficult for an individual British Labour Party or Conservative Party MP to have a major influence on what happens in his or her Westminster group, and it is even more difficult in Europe. Nonetheless, it is easier to become involved in such work if one is a member of a group.

675. Mr McElduff: Have you been impressed by any examples of rapporteur work for any of the regions?

676. Mr Poots: Several good streams of work have emerged. Fairly sensible recommendations have been made to the European Commission, some of which have been taken on board and many of which have been ignored.

677. Mr Elliott: I thank Edwin for his presentation. In your written submission, you said that the main purpose of the Committee of the Regions is for local councillors, who have direct access to their communities, to be able to influence European policymakers. Given that the overall European agenda is so big, I wonder how big an influence the Committee of the Regions can have. I assume that it is difficult even for the European Parliament committees to have any influence. Do you have any contact with European commissioners, the European Commission or, indeed, the European Parliament?

678. Mr Poots: All the reports are sent to the relevant Commissioners. Let us be honest, there is the European Commission, there is the European Parliament, which has very limited influence, and there is the Committee of the Regions, which has considerably less influence than that.

679. That is the reality, and, given the nature of Europe, it will be very difficult to change that, because the nations appoint their commissioners. As those commissioners are state appointees, they will try to promote the will of the Government of their country as far as they can. In some instances, a policy may be favourable to another region as a consequence of a commissioner following his or her national Government’s policies. If there was an agricultural commissioner from France, for example, that would probably be good news for farmers in Northern Ireland. However, if the agricultural commissioner came from the UK, it may not be good news for farmers in Northern Ireland.

680. A lot depends on the commissioners and who appoints those commissioners — that will have an effect on how policies emanate. What happens thereafter also depends on what deals are struck between the various commissioners. The commissioners work with each other. Therefore, if someone could establish contacts with a commissioner — whether from the UK Government, from the Republic Of Ireland, or elsewhere — it could be to the benefit of one’s region.

681. Mr Elliott: Do you agree that there is generally a perception that most decisions taken in Europe are not taken on their own merit, but rather through deals?

682. Mr Poots: Yes.

683. The Chairperson: Thank you very much, Mr Poots.

684. Mr Poots: Good luck with the report; I look forward to reading it.

685. The Chairperson: If there is any additional information that you wish to submit, you can contact us. Or, if there is a query that we would like addressed, we will be in contact. Thank you very much indeed.

18 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Ms Oonagh McGillion
Mr Tony Monaghan

Derry City Council

686. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): The last evidence session is with Derry City Council, which is represented by Ms Oonagh McGillion and Tony Monaghan, who are very welcome. Thank you for attending. You may wish to provide the Committee with an overview, after which members will ask questions. The Committee anticipates that the session will last about 20 minutes.

687. Ms Oonagh McGillion (Derry City Council): We will use our written submission as a summary of the key points that Derry City Council wishes to make to the Committee. Those points can be subdivided into three, the first of which is European policy, the second is European funding, and the third is European representation.

688. After listening to the previous witnesses, I imagine that a number of the issues that we will present to the Committee have already been covered. Please bear with us while we raise some further points in respect of that information.

689. European policy is an area that has caused councils much consideration, in that 70% of European policy affects Northern Ireland at a local level. The Committee has heard several of those mentioned — for example, waste management. Derry City Council wants to draw attention to the fact that those are central policies that are not disseminated on the basis of their local impact, costs and benefits. Therefore, when a policy is introduced in Northern Ireland, the regional impact is not identified, and councils must often pick up significant costs related to the implementation of those policies. That gap is significant. If more analysis were carried out at a Northern Ireland level, and more support were given to local authorities, implementation of those policies would be more effective when they reach local level.

690. Initial problems that we have recognised include waste management, which has a significant environmental impact. It has put a huge financial burden on ratepayers. Having completed our rate-estimate process at the end of last week, we have had to increase the burden on local ratepayers in the Derry City Council area by £1 million. That is extremely significant. It is over and above what was identified in previous years.

691. We urge the Northern Ireland Assembly to challenge constructively the European Commission on its commitment not only to peripheral regions but to subregions within those, such as in the Northern Ireland context. Significant time and energy have been spent on regional policy documents such as the regional development strategy. Where do those policies fit when EU policy enters at Northern Ireland level? How can commitments that have been made under a regional policy directive match what is asked for by European policy? Often, there is a mismatch, to which proper due consideration is not given.

692. The Derry City Council area, like many others, has benefited from European funding programmes, particularly significant peace and reconciliation structural funds and cross-border territorial co-operation programmes. Notwithstanding that, when European programmes have been designed at Northern Ireland level, they have not taken due cognisance of, for example, the regional development strategy, which states that there are subregional disparities. They have not taken due cognisance of TSN, section 75, Investing for Health or neighbourhood renewal by the Department for Social Development.

693. If all those policies are considered against the significant levels of deprivation in the Derry City Council area, it is clear that the council did not get its fair share of European programme funds that have come into Northern Ireland. We welcome an analysis of the application of TSN, section 75 and all other policies towards dealing with regional disparities in the European funding initiatives that have been implemented throughout Northern Ireland. Now there is a chance, if needs be, to take corrective action through new programmes that are currently being implemented in Northern Ireland.

694. Previous witnesses from Craigavon Borough Council referred to three current EU programmes — the competitiveness, employment and rural development programmes. Those programmes are currently important for the Derry City Council area. However, they present significant challenges. Five projects in the area have been approved. They have been awarded funding of 65% of their total costs but have been unable to secure the remaining 35%, which means that they are unable to draw down that funding.

695. It has been suggested to those organisations that they should secure match funding from Derry City Council, DSD, the health and social care trusts, and so on. In fact, those organisations do not have the necessary resources to co-finance those initiatives. We have lobbied the Department strongly to urge it to consider changing intervention rates.

696. Provision of 50% grant aid for the rural population will also be a challenge. Those operational programmes were written during periods of growth and boom. The current economic climate is quite different. Therefore, although we recognise that only certain changes can be made to the operational programmes, we call on the monitoring committees to give special consideration to current intervention rates.

697. We acknowledge that the Northern Ireland Assembly has tried to be creative with access to European funding. The most recent example is the distribution of grants by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. We believe that there should be dedicated pots of money for specific programmes throughout Northern Ireland.

698. In previous times, we had access to the integrated development fund, which recognised that there were discrete projects in Northern Ireland that were deserving of development. We believe that we should be lobbying strongly for similar funding programmes with a European perspective. For example, the URBAN programme had an important role in kick-starting investment in neighbourhood renewal in Northern Ireland, and URBAN II had an impact on Derry city. Community initiatives no longer exist, but that type of intervention proved to be invaluable to the local communities at which it was targeted.

699. We are very fortunate to have three MEPs who represent us in Europe and who advocate and lobby strongly on behalf of Northern Ireland. However, the Northern Ireland Assembly should give our MEPs additional support and encourage a strong collaborative approach to issues, not only in the Northern Ireland context but in a wider Irish context in order to benefit from the European opportunities that are available to us.

700. The Northern Ireland Centre in Europe was a vibrant organisation. However, we feel that the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels does not provide the same level of service. Perhaps the Committee can address that issue as part of its deliberations. We thank the Committee for inviting us here today; we believe that there is an opportunity to change the way in which European issues are addressed at a local level.

701. The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation. How can local government in Northern Ireland build better and deeper relationships with the EU? You concentrated on your own council area, which is to be expected, but how does your work broaden out into a more strategic context for local government generally in Northern Ireland?

702. Ms McGillion: I mentioned European policy in my opening comments; we believe that there should be a mechanism for delivering dedicated support that translates European policy directives at the local level. That support should be made available to all council areas in Northern Ireland. The community and voluntary sector provide dedicated support through the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA). I respectfully suggest that local government should use a similar approach, perhaps through the auspices of NILGA or through some other recognised organisation that could support local authorities in interpreting and implementing European policy. I apologise if that did not come across strongly in my opening remarks; we recognise that all of Northern Ireland is affected by European policy, not just the Derry City Council area.

703. Mr Elliott: I am particularly interested in the issue of European directives and the significant way in which they affect local government. In your written submission, you say that Derry City Council:

“considers the current scrutiny role being implemented by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to be inadequate for the needs and challenges facing local government in Northern Ireland."

704. You go on to say that there should be a greater emphasis on reviewing European policy directives, and:

“particularly at their potential local impact and on the dissemination of this information so that local authorities can make a more informed response".

705. I wonder whether you realise the enormity of that task. We visited the Scottish Parliament a few weeks ago to see how it addressed those issues. The Scots find it impossible to keep up with developments. The Dáil has a very active European scrutiny committee, but again, its members find it impossible to keep up with the amount of legislation that is produced by the European Union. The Scots concentrate their scrutiny activity on just three or four issues. Do you have any suggestions as to how we can do better? Should we adopt a targeted approach and narrow our scrutiny focus onto one or two issues? Based on the evidence that we have received to date, it is virtually impossible for a regional Assembly such as ours to keep abreast of all the issues.

706. Ms McGillion: Others have already made attempts in that regard, and we are fortunate that we can learn valuable lessons from their experiences. Starting with something is better than starting with nothing. It is better to start with the directives that are considered to have the greatest impact rather than adopting a scattergun approach and trying to target all EU directives.

707. Some directives will have less of an impact than others. We respectfully suggest that you start by monitoring the directives that have the greatest impact and resource them. That will ascertain the effect of those directives and whether there is an opportunity to collaborate and share information with other assemblies in the UK and Ireland. Instead of everyone going off and doing their own thing, information can be shared on what is happening across the wider area.

708. Mr Moutray: Thank you for your presentation. You are the third local authority that has made a presentation to the Committee this afternoon, but you are unique in that you are the only one of those council areas that shares a land border with another EU state. You mentioned that you had benefited from cross-border collaboration and funding. To what extent did you benefit, and do you feel that the collaboration was maximised?

709. Ms McGillion: INTERREG funding has played a significant role, particularly in respect of capital infrastructure development. One of the most recent INTERREG projects to be announced is Project Kelvin, and it gives an indication of the scale of the investment that can be realised through dedicated funding.

710. We enjoy an excellent relationship with Donegal County Council, which has played an important role in the north-west region cross-border group. The councils of Strabane, Limavady, Derry and Donegal sit on that group, and it has secured significant funding. Furthermore, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and Invest Northern Ireland, also secured a number of innovation projects in their last tranche of funding.

711. It is slightly concerning for us that there does not seem to be the level of activity in attempting to secure funding opportunities for the north-west that there was previously. The budget has been much reduced, and it does not have the same level of capital infrastructure projects that we enjoyed before.

712. Ms Anderson: I want to clear something up in case there is any confusion. Stephen has led me to say Derry City, as the instruction-to-tender project for Project Kelvin states that it is located in Londonderry, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland. In case there is any confusion, Derry City Council is before us here, not Coleraine Borough Council.

713. Belfast City Council has an EU unit, and, in the first presentation today, its representative indicated that it has secured £12 million. Would a dedicated EU unit assist Derry City Council in maximising possible benefits? I was impressed to hear of the number of programmes and projects that Belfast City Council is tapping into for the benefit of Belfast and the adjacent council areas. Derry City Council could consider doing something similar, and that may assist in the pooling of resources with Donegal County Council under the workings of INTERREG.

714. The creation of super-councils under the RPA will amalgamate the councils of Derry and Strabane. Therefore, Derry City Council will inherit problems such as deprivation and huge numbers of lone parents. How can we maximise any available opportunities in the European economic recovery plan, for example? We hear about that plan, but I do not have enough information on it. At this Committee, Bairbre de Brún, and possibly other MEPs, mentioned that that plan will at least try to address the match-funding issue. Have you any more information about that plan? Would it be worthwhile to pursue it at your end? We can also pursue it and then share the information.

715. Many people seem to work only within their own silo and focus on their own geographical area. How can we pool resources to maximise benefits for everyone who lives here?

716. Ms McGillion: That is beginning to happen organically. The Peace III programme is being delivered via a subregional approach. Strabane and Omagh are collaborating to deliver that programme. There is also a cluster under rural development, which includes not only Omagh, Strabane and Derry but Limavady. We are starting to see that synergy, and people are working together to identify and address subregional problems to try to make the funding go further. We are not in a unique situation, but we are addressing significant problems in our geographical area, and we have carried out a considerable amount of animation work. By that, I mean that local communities are now really engaged, and they want to be able to help themselves and to take control of how they improve their lives.

717. We need to ensure that people are not left behind when it comes to European funding. For instance, significant regeneration projects will happen in the city, but we need to ensure that local people avail of those projects. That is why the EU employment programme is so important. It will upskill and engage people who are economically inactive as well as people who are long-term unemployed. We are considering whether we can do collaborative projects with Strabane, because the unemployment rates and economic inactivity rates are very similar to those in Derry. Therefore, we are looking at joint initiatives and joint programmes rather than just doing things in an individual geographical area.

718. Ms Anderson: The PROGRESS programme is mentioned in the report of the task force, and there is £743 million of EU money attached to it. There should be a lobby, and the Committee is going to make a submission to the Executive on our response to the report. However, there is no reference to that in DEL’s action plan. When we met officials last week, they said that they did not wish to tap into that opportunity because of the difficulties that the Departments faced when trying to engage with Europe. I do not know if that opportunity has been lost, but, given that it is about employability, we need to try to find a mechanism through which DEL can tap into that resource and maximise it. However, that needs to come not only from us but from other organisations.

719. Mr Tony Monaghan (Derry City Council): I will pick up on the dedicated EU units. In Derry City Council, we have sought to maximise European funding opportunities through the north-west regional cross-border group accessing INTERREG funds, the European social fund or establishing partnerships through Peace funds. I work in the economic development section of the council, and we have sought to maximise the funding opportunities that are available. However, we are examining how other local authorities are seeking to provide a dedicated focus. The council’s development department will shortly be going through review and restructuring, and we have sought to identify a dedicated resource that will assist us in identifying, co-ordinating and helping us to assemble European funding bids.

720. Mr Spratt: I thought that you were negative in your remarks about the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. Members visited the office and were impressed with the amount of work that was being done there, so I am wondering why you made that remark. What contact have you made with the office, and what efforts have you made to secure assistance from it, which is what it is all about? The Committee has never heard any negative comments about the office before.

721. Since the restoration of devolution, there have probably been more ministerial visits. Junior Ministers visit Europe regularly, and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and other Ministers visit Brussels regularly. There has been contact with the Northern Ireland Assembly at the highest level. The president of the European Union has visited here, along with other key players in relation to major funding in the context of Europe. There is much more happening now than during direct rule.

722. Will you provide two or three examples of work that MEPs have done on behalf of Derry City Council to bring major funding to the Derry area?

723. Ms McGillion: My comment was certainly not intended to be negative, because we recognise that it is great to have the dedicated asset of the resource of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. As you said, it plays an important role. The policy directive is for local authorities, particularly Derry City Council, to be able to translate policy, implement that policy and identify any potential challenges and barriers to implementation at the local level.

724. I was not aware that the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels provided that service, but I can review that. That is the genesis and the background of where my comment came from, but I was not referring to the work of that office. There is no question that it is considered to be an excellent resource.

725. MEPs, through securing European funding for the city, have played a significant role through the first and subsequent Peace programmes and the Building Sustainable Prosperity programme. Funding has not only benefited Derry City Council but all of Northern Ireland and the six border counties. That has been a significant implementation to those areas; for example, the URBAN I programme was targeted at deprived neighbourhoods in the city such as the Bogside, Brandywell, Fountain and Creggan. That was a community initiative that was available for all of Northern Ireland in the first instance, and, through discrete lobbying, Derry and Belfast benefited from that.

726. The LEADER programmes, which are rural development programmes, are not specific to Derry City Council but are used across Northern Ireland. Those have been valuable to the local rural economy. The rural area partnership in Derry (RAPID) recently told us that it has been able to secure a further £3 for every £1 of European funding that has come in. It has been able to secure a significant amount of leverage. Therefore, the MEPs have played an important role not only in bringing the mainstream programmes to Northern Ireland but the community initiatives, which provide a top-up over and above the European funding.

727. Mr Spratt: May I be clear: you do not have any basis for your earlier comments on the work of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels? You have not attempted to use that office or to make any enquiries with it.

728. Ms McGillion: Derry City Council has been with that office, and we have made a number of European visits, particularly under a Peace II project — Outward and Forward Looking Region. The office has been involved with engagements and exchanges. I shall qualify my earlier remarks: they concerned the local interpretation of EU policy and directives coming to the local area, not about the representation in Brussels.

729. Mr Spratt: Therefore, you are happy enough with the work that is being done by the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, and Derry City Council has no problem with it.

730. Ms McGillion: No, it has not.

731. Mr Molloy: How do you see a different role for the MEPs in how they could buy in and be part of a local structure? I was surprised to hear that Derry City Council did not believe that it did not get its portion of funds, because the rest of us always believed that Derry got all the funds from Europe.

732. European law is made by the member Governments. Do you think that enough pressure is put on by the Governments here — North and South — and by the British Government to make appropriate legislation? The waste directives, which are a burden, are made up by the member states, two of which are the British Government and the Irish Government.

733. Obviously, the member states did not think far enough ahead when they were making the waste directives to put in place targets and the structures to deal with those. The main issue that has arisen is that the councils did not question that in a response. The same can be said of the European funding. All the councils sought the Peace and rural moneys, but they did not seek the other funding that is available.

734. Did Derry City Council ask about, or object to, any of the terms and conditions for accessing European funding for the rural or URBAN programmes? The provision of funding for five self-catering units under the tourism programme is probably an unrealistic figure. That problem was identified, and yet no one seemed to object to it. We have discussed redrawing the terms and condition for that programme, and it is important that we do so. That is a wee lesson, because, in the past, funding has not met the needs of the area. Funding applications should be drawn up to meet the needs of an area, not the other way round, whereby funding applications are rejigged to suit the plan.

735. As regards Jimmy Spratt’s point, has the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels yet to fulfil any of Derry City Council’s demands? Has the council had any contact with the European Commission Office in Belfast to discuss the implementation, or explanation, of European issues?

736. Ms McGillion: Derry City Council has submitted formal responses on European policies, directives and programmes and has engaged in consultation exercises in respect of those.

737. It is a challenge for the Department of Finance and Personnel to encapsulate those responses in a programme to meet an area’s different needs, whether they are local needs or subregional needs. We have good programmes that address significant issues in a Northern Ireland context around peace and reconciliation, and rural development.

738. Quite often, programmes’ overarching objectives do not translate well at a local level. The council has found that the mismatch occurs when it attempts to design its local strategy, because it cannot always do everything that it wants to do. However, that is probably not the fault of any of the programmes’ designers.

739. This is very much an evolving process. The initial consultation for those structural programmes was undertaken a number of years ago. However, as time has lapsed, the economy and priorities have changed to create a different set of circumstances. One cannot be as flexible and reactive to those local circumstances as one would like.

740. I cannot quote any examples of when the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels has not supported the council. Certainly, it has always acknowledged any correspondence about, or participation in, consultation events on European programmes. We have always had an opportunity to contribute to those.

741. Mr Molloy: The European Commission Office in Belfast seems to have slipped out of the net. Everyone is examining the role of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, and yet the European Commission Office in Belfast does not seem to be doing its job, which is to provide explanations about projects.

742. Ms McGillion: I am not too sure about that.

743. The Chairperson: Do members have any further points or queries?

744. Ms Anderson: I went to Brussels with the Foyle Women’s Information Network, which represents women’s organisations from both sections of the community, to meet representatives from that office. The women said that they did get much from the office before, during or after the meeting and that they felt that it would be easier for them to engage with the office if it were set at a different level. The women also said that they did not feel that the office’s representatives were particularly friendly towards community groups that were trying to access information.

745. It might just be the case that they are going to the wrong location, but that was certainly the view from many of the organisations. A lot of them are from the unionist community.

746. Mr Spratt: I thought that they should have made use of a local office.

747. Ms Anderson: That group went to Brussels to see how they can influence and intervene in policies when they are being developed. It is too late to become involved after they have been agreed. They went over to try to learn about what is going on in Europe. It is worth noting that not everyone sees the situation in the same way.

748. The Chairperson: I thank Oonagh and Tony for their presentation and for their answers today. If you wish to provide us with any other information, we are happy to receive it. It may be that we will need to clarify some points with you.

18 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Ms Laura Leonard

Belfast City Council

749. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): The Committee will today hear evidence on its consideration of European issues. The first session is with representatives from Belfast City Council, and members have received copies of the council’s written submission. I welcome Laura Leonard, the European manager, and Shirley McCay, the head of the economic initiative. Good afternoon; you are very welcome.

750. Ms Laura Leonard (Belfast City Council): I am afraid that Shirley is ill today, so I am here alone.

751. The Chairperson: The Committee is seeking evidence on its consideration of European issues. You may wish to make a short presentation and then answer some questions from members. We hope that this session will last approximately 20 to 30 minutes.

752. Ms Leonard: Good afternoon, Chairperson, and members of the Committee. I appreciate the opportunity to engage with you this afternoon. Members will have received Belfast City Council’s written submission, which was sent some time ago. I will not go into the detail of that, but I will make a few introductory comments.

753. The European unit in Belfast City Council was established in 2004 and was endorsed by all political parties. It is based on a consideration of best practice for local authorities across the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, in engaging with the European Union.

754. Members can see from the submission that there have been significant results since 2004. The unit has brought in over £12 million, is heavily involved in lobbying networks — particularly the 137-strong Eurocities network — and engages in the lobbying and influencing of policy. The unit’s key objectives are to maximise opportunities through European funding — over and beyond the mainstream EU programmes that are available here into other transnational and inter-regional opportunities — and also to be alert to, and to interpret and disseminate, policies that are relevant to local authorities on the ground. The unit services the full council and the other five councils that make up the metropolitan area.

755. We work with other stakeholders including the universities, Belfast Metropolitan College, the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, and so on. We already have a strong relationship with our colleagues in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) both here and in Brussels. Members will be aware that we engage annually in the Opportunity Europe initiative. We work with honorary consuls, and we have been involved with events when the UK held the presidency of the European Union (EU).

756. We fully support the Committee’s consideration of the setting up a subcommittee on Europe. We believe that Europe should not be a bolt-on: it affects everything that we do. All the political parties believe that our European unit is a politically neutral platform to engage on Europe, benefit from it and be aware of how Europe affects us daily.

757. The submission that I have provided to members on the council’s behalf references ‘Northern Ireland: Report of the Task Force’ and the National Forum on Europe, which is the model in the South of Ireland. We engaged in the task force consultation exercise, and we await the outcome and action plan. We look forward to being a key stakeholder in the implementation of that action plan. We believe that there is scope for examining the South’s model — the National Forum in Europe, which is backed by all political parties — for better engagement in Europe.

758. Members will be aware that there is a special observer pillar, in which some of the parties in the North participate. That is also a politically neutral forum for engaging with civil society on issues concerning Europe. The council reached agreement in 2007 to consider setting up a Belfast forum on Europe, where we would hold a number of events each year to examine the key emerging policies that affect us.

759. In a nutshell, we support the Committee’s examination of the potential to set up a subcommittee on Europe and are keen to be a partner in the implementation of actions arising from the action plan.

760. The Chairperson: Thank you very much for your concise presentation. Belfast City Council, as the largest council in Northern Ireland, already has an established track record of working with and through Europe. How do you think that that can be better improved in conjunction with other local authorities in light of the review of public administration (RPA)? How could it be ensured that the interests of Belfast were not being promoted over and above the interest of local government generally in Northern Ireland? I am not criticising Belfast City Council in any shape or form, but it should be recognised that local government exists outside Belfast, and there are issues about how it would be best co-ordinated on European issues for effective improvement.

761. Ms Leonard: Naturally, our bread and butter is the promotion of the Belfast metropolitan area, the urban agenda and, increasingly, the urban/rural agenda. I fully believe that when the RPA rolls out and the 11 councils are reconfigured, there should be a resource at local government level. There are lost opportunities there.

762. The Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) has a one-man resource to try to better engage with Europe, but that only supports elected members by sitting on the monitoring committees for the current EU programmes. I believe that each super-council or larger council should have a European unit to do exactly as we are doing — keeping a daily watch on policies and opportunities for funding.

763. For example, we are currently engaged in the consultation on the new territorial cohesion policy. That will have a big impact on funding in the North, post-2013, and we want to ensure that we have an input into the UK response to that. Similarly, 2010 is the year of social inclusion and anti-poverty, and we are already planning how to access opportunities. We need to have a European unit for each of those larger authorities, or at least try to create some kind of shared resource. That is critical.

764. The Chairperson: Who do you think should co-ordinate that? Should it be NILGA, or should the corresponding local government units provide some form of secretariat that would have a broad overview?

765. Ms Leonard: It could be NILGA. In my experience, most European activity in councils tends to emanate from their economic development units because of the European regional development fund (ERDF) moneys that are driven through that. The European unit that I manage emerged from my role as an economic development officer. European activity can emerge through that, and it can emerge corporately. Resources could be put in from Departments into creating an overarching co-ordinating unit in NILGA as one option.

766. Ms Anderson: I am impressed by the amount of £12 million, which you said that Belfast has been able to gain since 2004. You said that you have responded to the report of the task force, and we have noted that the seventh framework programme could result in universities securing money for research. That is particularly relevant to Belfast, given that it has two universities.

767. We also note the PROGRESS programme, which is about employability and social solidarity and to which £743 million is allocated. The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) is the lead Department for that programme, but it is not included in its action plan. Have you raised those kinds of concerns? Do you lobby Ministers in order to raise potential opportunities that should be maximised? You would look at opportunities for Belfast, and we would look across the North.

768. Ms Leonard: We engage with most Departments. We have not started to look at the PROGRESS programme yet, but that is on our list of things to do. We have held targeted information sessions for the universities and for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on the seventh framework programme. Businesses can really benefit from that programme this time around. Yesterday, I was in Brussels, and they were talking about 100% funding for businesses under that programme. In the current climate, that is a real opportunity.

769. We work with DEL through the European social fund (ESF) moneys that it delivers, and we work with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) through the European regional development fund (ERDF). For the last year and a half, we have been lobbying the Department for Social Development (DSD) and DETI to embrace the joint European resources for micro to medium enterprises (JEREMIE) funding, which is a new financial instrument for small businesses through the European Investment Bank’s loan system, and the joint European support for sustainable investment in city areas (JESSICA) funding, which is a new initiative for urban redevelopment. That is potentially exciting for Northern Ireland, given that there is such a strain on resources. On a project-by-project basis, we engage with Departments.

770. Mrs D Kelly: We have heard about the relationship between the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels and officials here, how that could be strengthened and whether it meets the requirements. In the summary of your submission, you say that you want to:

“develop a stronger working relationship, particularly around dissemination of European policy."

771. Is that a gap that you have identified?

772. Ms Leonard: We have a good working relationship with the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, and we have huge respect for its team. However, I believe that it is under-resourced. One cannot possibly keep abreast of all policies in every area that is relevant to here, from agriculture to fishing to urban issues. There is a gap in resources, and I believe that that must be looked at. I have a team of dedicated staff who are on that every day, but other councils and other sectors do not have the resources to use the Internet or to talk to directorates general in Brussels, so there is a gap.

773. Mr Shannon: I am sorry that I missed your presentation, but I read the research material, which provides an insight. I noticed how you have managed to work the system, and that has been reflected in the questions that you have been asked today. In the Chairman’s initial comments, he spoke about how you have been able to be involved in Europe and to take full advantage of funding. The £12 million is an example of the resources and money that can come into the system.

774. My question follows on from what the Chairman said. How do you see the councils working together in the future to galvanise all the talents and all the resources? Other members may have a different opinion, but I feel that it is not necessary to have a European officer on each council. It might be better to have someone to look after urban and rural issues for councils. I suspect that two or three officers would be ample to deal with that.

775. All councils have economic development departments and officers, and — wearing my other hat as a member of Ards Borough Council — our officer has a fairly good grasp of European issues and seems to be well up to speed with what moneys are available.

776. Do you feel that, if economic development officers from all the councils acted together, they could strengthen our relationships with Europe? Do you feel that your individual role in Belfast City Council is a better way to strengthen that relationship?

777. Ms Leonard: As I said, the European unit that I manage emerged from the economic development unit in which I used to work.

778. Mr Shannon: Is that unit now separate?

779. Ms Leonard: Yes it is, and it serves the entire council. Economic development officers are well placed and have the necessary skills to become our link with Europe. They already work on European regional development funding issues and receive a lot of policy documentation on Europe.

780. My unit also services the other five councils that cover the Belfast metropolitan area — Lisburn City Council, Castlereagh Borough Council, Carrickfergus Borough Council, North Down Borough Council and Newtownabbey Borough Council. We apply for funding collectively, I share policy papers with those councils, and, if I am asked and it is relevant, I share other matters. One issue to bear in mind is that, although there are many other funding opportunities, there are also many funding requirements; for example, if a council applies for funding from the LIFE programme, it still has to invest 25% or 50% of ratepayers’ money. Therefore, councils are better off applying collectively as we do: we have six councils, as opposed to one council, taking the hit. Therefore, there are implications for going after such funding, and I encourage partnership in that process.

781. Mr Shannon: You mentioned that you work with five other councils, including North Down Borough Council. Is that because of proximity and urban spread? When RPA changes are implemented and Ards Borough Council takes over North Down Borough Council — as we intend to — will that relationship change?

782. Ms Leonard: We discussed that issue at our recent AGM, and we still see the relationship remaining. The relationship began with a collective response on the Belfast metropolitan area plan (BMAP) exercise, and the chief executives of the councils still see value in maintaining the metropolitan circle.

783. I am also a secretary for the councils of the metropolitan area (COMET) INTERREG partnership. North Down Borough Council is part of the Belfast partnership and the partnership in the east border region. Newtownabbey Borough Council is part of the Belfast partnership and the north-east partnership. Therefore, councils can be members of different partnerships, but, obviously, I think that the metropolitan one is the best.

784. Mr Shannon: I have one other question.

785. The Chairperson: As long as it is not a declaration of war.

786. Mr Shannon: No, North Down Borough Council will roll over. [Laughter.]

787. Belfast City Council has developed links with China. Has that been done through your European unit or through the economic development department?

788. The Chairperson: China is a long way from Europe.

789. Ms Leonard: I worked on that before I became the European manager. Belfast has a sister relationship with Hefei province in China, which includes work with universities and establishing strategic alliances with businesses, such as Delta Print and Packaging in west Belfast. That is the responsibility of the economic development unit, as is the development of relationships with North America. However, from looking at other models in the UK and Europe, it seems that development of European and international links are usually the responsibility of an external relations unit, which deals with both tasks together. In Belfast, responsibility is separate, which is a resource issue.

790. Mr Molloy: I am glad to hear that Ards is being taken under someone’s wing.

791. Mr Shannon: Easy now, boy.

792. Mr Molloy: Larger councils would not benefit if councils worked together. Would Belfast City Council regard itself as one of the councils that could relay information on European issues to a wider group?

793. Ms Leonard: We were approached by a particular council in that regard. I did some research to find out how we could assist that council on European issues. It was a completely rural agenda, which is not something that I usually deal with. We offered to set up a service level agreement, but that did not happen. Nevertheless, we would be willing to co-ordinate that if the required resources were made available.

794. Mr Molloy: Do you think that other councils, particularly rural councils, have lost out as a result of not having ties with Europe?

795. Ms Leonard: Yes, I think that they have. Rural council and MEP representation has been particularly strong on the common agricultural policy and other rural issues, and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has also been strong on European issues. However, opportunities have been missed. The seven themes and budgets of the sixth environmental action programme (EAP) could be tapped into, but that has been ruled out. No one is carrying out that work.

796. Mr Molloy: Martina mentioned the report of the task force earlier. Has that report enabled Belfast City Council to identify opportunities in areas that it may have missed in the past?

797. Ms Leonard: We were already aware of all the different thematic areas that the report identifies. It is our job to have a daily watching brief so that we know what programmes are out there.

798. Mr Molloy: Was the report of the task force not of any real benefit to the council on that occasion?

799. Ms Leonard: The report of the task force is a welcome document in that it co-ordinates Departments here for the first time to focus on Europe and identify the associated opportunities. An action plan will be the outcome of that, so we support the report.

800. Mr Spratt: I apologise for being a bit late and missing the start of your presentation. I also declare an interest as a member of Castlereagh Borough Council. I want to make two points in relation to the Belfast metropolitan area and the councils outside Belfast, including Castlereagh, that are serviced by Belfast City Council.

801. First, what benefits have there been for Castlereagh, for example, as a result of the work that has been ongoing for the past few years? My second, and more important, point relates to Queen’s University Belfast. On one of our trips to Brussels, we met representatives of universities in the South. Those universities have folk in Brussels who network in order to acquire research money, and so on, and I note that some of those universities have acquired money from Europe for research and development.

802. Have you had any talks with Queen’s University and the University of Ulster to encourage them to network in a similar way? I tried to encourage Queen’s to have someone out there networking and tapping into those opportunities. It appears that networking is the way to go about acquiring European funding. Indeed, given that the economic climate is more difficult now, such networking is probably more important than ever before. How much consultation do you give to Queen’s and the Belfast metropolitan area on EU issues?

803. Ms Leonard: We meet representatives from Queen’s University and the University of Ulster regularly to discuss European affairs. Queen’s is pretty strong on accessing the sixth and seventh framework programmes, and it brings in consultants to help. Belfast City Council recently helped Queen’s University to secure INTERREG IVa moneys to work through the Northern Ireland Centre for Competitiveness.

804. We meet representatives from Queen’s regularly to inform them of the available opportunities. We also held an information roadshow recently to examine the seventh framework programme and the competitiveness and innovation programme. Queen’s brought its key researchers to that roadshow to assess potential applications. The University of Ulster has also secured INTERREG IVa funding through us recently, and we regularly meet its representatives to highlight the available opportunities. We also engage with Belfast Metropolitan College, which now includes the former Castlereagh College.

805. You asked how Castlereagh Borough Council has benefited from the work that has been going on. A member of that council is currently in Brussels. Economic development managers are currently meeting officials from DG enterprise and industry and DG regional policy in Brussels to consider the opportunities for the metropolitan area. We jointly lobbied DETI to look at the future role of local economic development, and we submitted a joint paper. We are currently in discussions with DETI to ascertain how each member state can avail of the new JEREMIE initiative.

806. Through that initiative, we can work with the European Investment Bank to put together a cycle of loan funds for small businesses using the European regional development fund money that Northern Ireland has in its pot. There are few grants available in the current climate, but, through that initiative, businesses can get low-cost-value loans. It will provide a continued cycle of funding for small businesses. DETI is scoping that at present, and there might be a pilot scheme. We are pushing to have that pilot in the COMET area.

807. Belfast City Council was engaged with Castlereagh Borough Council in a Peace-funded project, which lasted for two years. We examined good waste management practice. That best practice was brought back into each of the six councils in the metropolitan area. We looked at urban regeneration practices, civic engagement practices and local economic development. In that project, we linked up with Stockholm, Valencia, Rybnik in Poland and another location. We also took officers and members to look at the projects in those areas. Collectively, we funded manufacturing research and examined the state of play of manufacturing in the COMET regions.

808. Currently, we are considering how independent retail is protected elsewhere in Europe, given that independent retailers are suffering greatly. That project is being co-ordinated through my unit. Our work ranges from funding to research to information to best practice.

809. Mr Spratt: The banking issue, particularly in respect of the European Investment Bank and the business sector, has come up many times. It was raised by some officials on previous occasions, so we should probe further into that.

810. The Chairperson: Thank you, Laura, for your presentation and for the clarity of your answers. You may contact us if you want to submit further related information; likewise, we might contact you with a query.

18 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Jonathan McGibbon
Ms Olga Murtagh
Mrs Nicola Wilson

Craigavon Borough Council

811. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): The next session is with Craigavon Borough Council.

812. Mr Moutray: I declare an interest as a member of that august council, as is Mrs Kelly.

813. Mr Shannon: I suggest that, since they are members, they do not need to ask any questions.

814. Mrs D Kelly: We want to ask the toughest questions.

815. Mr Elliott: It is a pity that my local council is not attending.

816. The Chairperson: I do not want to declare war on other council areas.

817. You are welcome to this afternoon’s Committee session. We are considering European issues. We have your written submission. You may begin by making a short presentation, after which members will ask questions. I anticipate that the session will last about 20 minutes.

818. Ms Olga Murtagh (Craigavon Borough Council): I am the director of development at Craigavon Borough Council, Councillor Jonathan McGibbon is the vice-chairperson of the development committee, and Mrs Nicola Wilson is the head of economic development at Craigavon Borough Council.

819. We welcome the opportunity to respond to the Committee on each element of the terms of reference in relation to European issues. Craigavon Borough Council welcomes the fact that the Executive are helping to shape the future of Northern Ireland at a European level. We also welcome the recommendations in ‘Northern Ireland: Report of the Task Force’ and the refinement of our relationship with the EU and the wider political involvement with the Executive and the European Union.

820. We realise that the European Union is making decisions that affect all member states, and our location on the periphery of Europe is important in terms of ensuring that that engagement takes place.

821. We realise that the European Union makes decisions that affect all member states. Our location on the periphery of Europe means that it is important that the Assembly ensure that engagement takes place.

822. We wish to comment on issue 1 of the terms of reference:

“to review the Northern Ireland Assembly’s role in relation to European issues and to make recommendations to improve scrutiny of European policy and enhance engagement with European issues."

823. The Executive must have a strategic, co-ordinated and integrated approach on European issues. Communication is vital in that regard. The Executive’s engagement on European issues could be assisted by developing a strategic approach to communication. The actions that the Committee should examine are: engaging the public on European issues; letting them know about the projects that the EU funds; and informing them of the impact that funding has made.

824. Craigavon Borough Council believes that the Executive have an important role to play in streamlining and interpreting the funding opportunities and the plethora of funding bodies set up to administer and oversee funding. We also believe that the Executive can help to shape some of those funding programmes by influencing the drafting of the relevant legislation.

825. There are many untapped sources of EU funding available, from which local authorities, universities, research bodies and the private sector can benefit. However, information on how to access funding is not readily available, and more awareness is needed. We should learn from best practice examples. The National Assembly for Wales has demonstrated some good success in lobbying on European issues. Therefore, we wish to engage with other parts of the UK in order to share their expertise.

826. Clarifying roles and responsibilities is a key issue. Lobbying European Ministers and influencing key decision-makers through communication is crucial. We see the Executive playing an important role in that respect.

827. Mrs Nicola Wilson (Craigavon Borough Council): Issue 2 considers the Executive’s strategic approach to European issues — in particular, their response to the report of the task force. The report is to be highly commended as it demonstrates EU commitment to Northern Ireland and its future of continued peace, political stability and economic growth.

828. The Northern Ireland Executive have taken a strategic approach to EU issues and the work of the task force. The report of the task force has been hailed as a road map for further co-operation, peace and prosperity. It also evaluates Northern Ireland’s participation in EU initiatives and relevant issues to our needs.

829. However, we feel that the Executive’s response to the report should also note the barriers, both real and perceived, to EU funding and engagement. Craigavon Borough Council has encountered some of those barriers, whether they are real or perceived. One barrier is that, at times, some EU funding appears to have competing priorities between programmes. Another barrier is that, sometimes, we have difficulties accessing decision-makers and key influencers — for example, the Committee of the Regions. When the Departments come to drawing up the single programming document for Northern Ireland, councils must be enabled to engage and influence at a local level so that they can bring their experience to bear on the process.

830. Another barrier to EU funding is the inability of the Lisbon agenda to suit the economic climate. The Committee is aware of the Northern Ireland EU competitiveness programme. All programmes and projects must comply with the Lisbon agenda, which aims to achieve the goal of making Europe the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010.

831. The Lisbon agenda’s key principles are innovation and the learning economy. As members know, however, the global recession has turned the economy on its head, and the Lisbon agenda is now perhaps seen as not being as relevant as it was when that programme was set two to three years ago. The shrinking and contracting of the UK economy means that businesses’ short-term focus is now on survival, not growth.

832. In response to the global recession, economic development practitioners have developed survival strategies and sought support from Europe through that EU competitiveness programme, only to be told that survival strategies do not fit with the Lisbon agenda. Those difficulties have arisen because Departments drew up the single programming document two years before the programme went live, and because the document does not suit the current economic climate. There is an inflexibility of the funding rules to be able to react to change, and the inability of the economic development practitioners to influence the decision-making process at an early stage.

833. However, Craigavon has benefited greatly from EU funding, and Craigavon Borough Council has been able to match fund moneys. Some of the rates manage to enhance the economic development prospects of the area. Notable examples include investment in a newbuild innovation centre for Craigavon, which has many benefits for the future in helping us to meet the Lisbon agenda. We have been able to invest substantially in tourism infrastructure — for example, building a new marina, complete with floating pontoons, which meets a local need. We have been able to develop many business development programmes that have helped businesses to grow, develop and reach a stage where they can become Invest Northern Ireland clients.

834. I will move on to issue 3, which considers European policy issues that fall within the remit of the Committee. There are many European issues that affect the economic climate of Northern Ireland and which would fall within the remit of the Committee. The first issue for consideration is the euro. Northern Ireland, as part of the UK and bordering the Republic of Ireland, is subject to the turbulent and fluctuating exchange rate, which plays havoc with local businesses, distorting trade on both sides of the border.

835. At present, businesses in Northern Ireland have a competitive advantage with the weakened pound. However, that has not always been the case. As members know, the fluctuations can be the difference between business success and business failure. At a local level, Craigavon Borough Council has been leading on a number of initiatives to try to get its businesses to capitalise on the strong euro. The council has initiated a Eurozone campaign aimed at encouraging shoppers from the Republic of Ireland into the borough. The fluctuating exchange rate is outside the control of the Committee, but it is an issue that must be borne in mind for future programmes.

836. We feel that the issue of economic migrants could be considered by the Committee. Economic migrants have had a huge impact on the economy of Craigavon, and over 2,000 migrant workers were employed in Craigavon in 2006, providing valuable support for factories, production lines, shift work and semi-skilled labour. In 2009, things have changed, and the tide is beginning to turn. Many migrant workers, particularly those in the Polish community, are returning to their own economies and leaving behind a huge labour market gap. That issue could be explored by the Committee.

837. A couple of months ago, some of us had the opportunity to be part of a delegation with the east border region, and we visited the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. We feel that it operates from within the heart of the European Parliament. A method must be found to harness and use this important position in Brussels. EU policy and practice can be influenced at a local level.

838. The Chairperson: Thank you for your comprehensive overview.

839. Obviously, Craigavon Borough Council has, very successfully, achieved EU funding for a variety of projects and business assistance, and you have outlined some of that. What role will Craigavon play in the new situation under the review of public administration, and with a greater emphasis by the Assembly and the Executive to create more established links with Europe? What are your links with other local government units, including those in Armagh and Banbridge, which you are scheduled to combine with under RPA? What model do you envisage to be the best in order to maximise influence in Europe from a local government level?

840. Ms Murtagh: We welcome the RPA proposals, which will make our council the second-largest local authority in Northern Ireland. The working relationship that exists through the east border region and the south-east economic development (SEED) group— which comprises seven councils including North Down Borough Council and Armagh City and District Council — gives us an opportunity to collaborate on projects collectively. We are working on several projects, which we have submitted to the EU competitiveness programme.

841. The future model is based on regional development agencies and will, potentially, provide the Executive with an opportunity to consider England’s successful model, which has harnessed a significant amount of funding and brought the private sector to the table. Councils need critical mass to be successful, and, as the second-largest local authority, we will have that critical mass. We also work closely with our colleagues through the local economic development forum, the details of which Nicola will outline.

842. Mrs N Wilson: Several councils work together in the local development forum, which has brought Departments to the table to explain what they are doing or what they plan to do. For example, we have brought decision-makers to the table in order to influence, shape and mould — through our experience — the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s strategy document on enterprise. Harnessing councils’ collective will and might at that level has borne fruit and is probably one mechanism through which local government can engage with Europe in the future.

843. Mr Shannon: Thank you for your responses. If Craigavon Borough Council ever needs a PR officer, Nicola should get the job. I am tempted to go there for my holidays on the strength of her comments. [Laughter.]

844. Olga said that the east border region will contribute to the RPA. An official from Belfast City Council gave evidence earlier and outlined that council’s actions. Although that council area covers a sprinkling of rural communities on the edge of Belfast, it is, in essence, an urban council area. Are there, perhaps, roles for two officers, one for urban areas and one for rural areas? Would that enable Northern Ireland to build relationships with Europe and, ultimately, get as much from Europe as possible? Although it seems mercenary to use that terminology, it is our job.

845. Your presentation referred to the expertise of the National Assembly for Wales, and you must be aware of examples from that assembly that we can, perhaps, use here. We are not too old or too parochial to learn.

846. Mrs N Wilson: I will answer the first question. We welcome every opportunity to put as many resources as possible into increasing engagement with Europe, and the appointment of an urban and a rural officer is, perhaps, a start. However, we need to address many more issues. We are aware that some councils already employ European officers.

847. However, we are mindful of many other issues on funding streams and other opportunities to explore issues that are unconnected to urban and rural officers. For example, we engage with universities and the further education sector, which encompasses urban and rural areas. One could build a case for appointing an officer to manage that area of business. I welcome any use of resources that will develop our engagement with Europe and get as much out of Europe — and give as much back — as possible.

848. Ms Murtagh: I am sure that the Committee has access to information on Welsh EU funding levels. Wales’s total budget is approximately €2·7 billion, and community funding through the European regional development fund amounts to €1·25 billion, which is approximately 11·8% of the total EU investment earmarked for the United Kingdom under the cohesion policy for 2007-20.

849. It is obvious from the financial outputs that Wales has secured a significantly better proportion of EU investment than Northern Ireland has. We are aware that there are opportunities for the Executive to meet and work with their counterparts in the National Assembly for Wales and that its representatives have visited here to discuss those opportunities. Wales has examined its infrastructure requirements in depth and is adopting a much more strategic and co-ordinated approach. It is useful for us to benefit from best practice elsewhere.

850. Mr Shannon: Therefore, it is not simply about money; it is about more than that. Is that what you are saying?

851. Ms Murtagh: Yes, it is.

852. Mr Shannon: Obviously, Wales has been able to increase the amount of money that it receives, but other resources are also involved.

853. Ms Murtagh: The European agenda seems to be central to what the National Assembly for Wales is trying to promote.

854. The Chairperson: It is reasonable to remind the Committee that Wales still enjoys Objective 1 status, which brings considerable benefits.

855. Mr Molloy: Thank you for your presentation. I want to ask about promotion. What is your opinion on links between councils and the Assembly with the Office of the Executive in Brussels? Would councils provide funding to support the Assembly with direct engagement? You said that, sometimes, it is difficult to engage with the decision-makers.

856. Jonathan, what do elected members feel about engagement with Europe and how the councils are tied in with it?

857. Mrs N Wilson: I am not really sure how to respond to that question because I do not know how the council would feel about having to give up valuable ratepayers’ funding to engage with Brussels.

858. The Chairperson: There are three councillors present, so we could perhaps test that theory. [Laughter.]

859. Mrs N Wilson: It would be a cross-party discussion, too.

860. From a recent visit to the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, I can say that there certainly is the potential to engage more effectively with that office, which is central to the European Parliament. The member mentioned promotion. I really do not know how best to engage. One approach might be to work on some sort of strategic communication policy. We could begin by holding meetings and seeing where we can go from there and perhaps develop an action plan for greater engagement in the future. We have not tried anything else previously, but we could meet representatives of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels and see what engagement proposals we can come up with. Once we have agreed an action plan or a way forward, we can certainly consider how that can be funded.

861. Ms Murtagh: I want to support my colleague’s comments. We are aware that NILGA is currently considering a European engagement strategy, and it has drawn up a business case for launching a European and international unit to help to support local government. That could, potentially, be part of a collaborative approach to engaging with Europe.

862. I have 18 years’ experience in local government, and I can recall that, in 1997, local councils contributed to an office in Brussels. It is up to each of the local authorities to consider — perhaps after the review of public administration has been implemented — what the impact of that funding would be. As far as ensuring that the argument is at a local level — and being mindful of the investment opportunities that Europe could bring — that is a decision for elected members.

863. Mr Jonathan McGibbon (Craigavon Borough Council): Broadly speaking, the elected members across the parties would share the views that have been outlined in the report. The main concerns are around duplication and competitiveness between different programmes, and with the difficulty in getting information on European projects to community and voluntary groups, and so on. At the end of the day, it is in the communities that the money makes a difference.

864. Mr Molloy: Have you any idea how much money Craigavon Borough Council has drawn down? I do not see that as contributing to the current Office of the Executive in Brussels, but a new Executive office would be funded if more financial benefits were available from Europe.

865. Ms Murtagh: We can report back to the Committee on the exact amount of funding that the council has received. The council has received significant funding through the Peace I and Peace II programmes, the local strategy partnership, the European regional development fund and other European funding programmes, as well as through the LEADER programme. The evaluation is of what impact that funding has made on the area and it how has contributed. What are the needs that still need to be met in each of the local council areas? There is an opportunity for the Executive to encourage that debate to take place.

866. Mr Elliott: Thank you very much for your interesting presentation. At one stage, I felt that you were suggesting that Craigavon Borough Council was in support of the Lisbon Treaty. I am unsure about that; perhaps you will provide clarification.

867. The way in which the National Assembly for Wales has handled EU issues has cropped up quite often, and Mr Shannon referred to that. Is a larger amount per capita going to Wales than to Northern Ireland? If that is the case, that is interesting, and the Committee needs to follow up that point.

868. How big an impact do European regulations and directives have on Craigavon Borough Council, particularly waste directives? Does the council feel, as many others do, that those are burdensome? Have you any ideas about how that can be changed?

869. Ms Murtagh: Up to 70% of EU policy directives have an impact on areas of work in local government. Those relate to waste management, environmental impacts, procurement and diversification of rural communities. EU directives need to be simplified so that the local population can understand them. The changing role of the Northern Ireland Executive as policy-makers is fundamental in that regard. EU directives have an important impact, but that information needs to be conveyed to the general public in a manner that they can understand.

870. As the Chairperson has mentioned, Wales still has Objective 1 status. We are aware that our productivity and gross value added is different from Wales, and we must consider comparisons in that regard. The opportunity provided by the investment in Wales has seen a greater return in relation to what it has been able to lever out. It is probably because of the types of projects to which they have earmarked funding to be allocated. There are opportunities arising from the great result that the impact has had in Wales.

871. Mr Elliott: Although, to be fair, it has had a fairly good result in areas in Northern Ireland as well. Finally, the issue concerning the waste directives is not just about people understanding them. It is about their implementation and the results of that implementation to the population. That is more important than understanding them.

872. Ms Murtagh: The council is a member of the southern waste management partnership (SWaMP) initiative. We are aware of the waste management requirements. That is a crucial issue, of which local authorities must be aware.

873. Mrs D Kelly: I cannot pass up the opportunity to speak, because I no longer serve on Craigavon Borough Council’s development committee. We have heard about building relationships, and a key message that the Committee received from the Republic of Ireland’s Joint Committee on European Affairs and the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee was in relation to networking. Craigavon Borough Council did give some funding to an office in Brussels. Witnesses have told the Committee that there needs to be an investment in resources, not only in the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels but in some mechanism here in the Executive or the Assembly.

874. Your presentation concentrated heavily on economic development. The previous witness from Belfast City Council said that 2010 will be the year of anti-poverty. Given that the central area of Craigavon, Court and the Birches are high up on the Noble indicators, how do you plan to maximise any opportunities at this stage? From where will you get advice? Who will be responsible for getting that advice out to the community and voluntary sector and others?

875. Ms Murtagh: The member has clearly raised the issue about the number of stakeholders and agencies involved in all the initiatives, and we have also highlighted that issue. A number of Departments — DSD in particular — have responsibility for the anti-poverty strategy, and we would seek to work closely with DSD.

876. In the Craigavon borough, there are neighbourhood renewal partnership areas in Portadown, Lurgan and Brownlow, and we believe that those provide an opportunity to consider the anti-poverty message.

877. Communication must be a two-way process. Information must be fed up the line, and we look forward to working with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in that regard. We are keen to have discussions about ensuring that the programmes can be communicated through, because the council plays a pivotal role in servicing all the partnerships in the local area.

878. Mrs D Kelly: Based on what I have heard, there seems to be no mechanism in place for that communication flow. It is all a bit hit and miss.

879. Ms Murtagh: I concur with that and with the comments from the official from Belfast City Council. Belfast has a dedicated European unit, which has sole responsibility for dealing with European issues, and it can consider those wider issues. It is not a resource that lies with many other local authorities, and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Committee and local councils should examine that. However, it is an ad hoc mechanism on how communication is fed back through to local government.

880. The Chairperson: Thank you. Mrs Kelly did not exactly give you a planted question.

881. Ms Anderson: Jonathan, following on from what Dolores said, you must be in contact with groups and organisations that are finding it difficult to obtain match funding. Indeed, many groups have contacted us to say that they are finding it difficult. Have you been able to tap into the European recovery plan? Groups do not know whether it has been fully developed or whether it is still out there. It is about allowing Departments such as DEL to give 100% funding rather than having to look for match funding.

882. There is a deficit with regard to outreach to groups and organisations. When you secure money, do you have experience of clawback? Have you given technical support to groups or organisations to ensure that if they have seen it happening in Peace I — and now we are on to Peace III — that they have understood the process?

883. Mr McGibbon: You are clearly right in what you have said. That is evidence, and it is part of the joined-up approach that is needed, but it must be more than that. It needs to be clearly defined, and that is part of the problem. Many of the groups do not know to whom they should turn, but the development department of Craigavon Borough Council has invited groups and delivered seminars to provide people with the necessary skills to apply for the fund and to provide the clear routes to take to download the fund. However, it needs to be broader, and the responsibility needs to be more clearly defined. That issue has been touched on.

884. Ms Anderson: Does the council often deliver seminars? Are they regular, or are they one-off events?

885. Ms Murtagh: We deliver regular seminars. We have a calendar of events for the community to come in, and we have a seminar next week on funding opportunities. The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, the lottery, the health trusts and community groups have been invited to come along and hear about all the available sources of funding. We also run grant-finder workshops to which community groups are invited in order to access a database for available funding, including that available from foundations and trusts rather than mainstream funding.

886. We work closely with other statutory agencies — for example, the health trusts, on their sources of funding for older people — and with education and library boards in relation to their funding for youth projects. Therefore, we believe that Craigavon Borough Council has a very good database of funding knowledge. However, Ms Anderson’s point about 100% funding is valid. That information is only now starting to come through slowly. We want to know from where the other total package of funding will come. That information has not been disseminated in an official manner.

887. Mrs D Kelly: However, it must be added that clawback is not allowed.

888. Mrs N Wilson: I deal with businesses that apply for European funding. A particular funding source that is pertinent at present is the rural development programme, which will soon open for applications. We anticipate that a lot of businesses will apply for grants of up to £50,000, but they must find the other 50% of the funding themselves. In the present economic climate, that will present a major barrier for rural businesses.

889. The council and its lead partners — councils that lead on the rural development programme — have been lobbying the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for companies to be allowed to include 45% sweat equity — their own work and toil — as part of their contribution, rather than trying to find 50%. Therefore, we are lobbying and trying to harness our collective resources, as councils, in order to make a difference to local businesses.

890. The Chairperson: That completes the questions from the Committee. I thank the witnesses for their presentation and answers. You have indicated that you will provide any additional information, including a breakdown of the council’s funds to date. The Committee looks forward to receiving that.

25 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Francie Molloy

Witnesses:

Dr Lee McGowan

Queen’s University Belfast

891. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): Let us move now to consideration of EU issues. I welcome Dr Lee McGowan from Queen’s University, who will provide evidence in respect of the Committee’s European inquiry.

892. Dr McGowan, I apologise for keeping you waiting and hope that you have not been too inconvenienced. The Committee looks forward to your presentation, after which you will perhaps make yourself available to take questions. The good news for you is that the number of members present has decreased.

893. Dr Lee McGowan (Queen’s University Belfast): Thank you very much. Given the time of day, I will make just a brief presentation and give the Committee my thoughts on this thing called the European Union.

894. The European Union is a political construct — a point I will return to later — agreed by member-state Governments. Two key words to always bear in mind when thinking of the European Union are “evolution" and “expansion". The European Union is continuing to evolve; where it will go, we can leave to a later date. It has also continued to expand: there were six states involved in the early days and that has now grown to 27. More states are waiting in the wings to join. The European Union is also expanding with regard to policy competences, and we will look at some of those later.

895. What do the treaties actually do? They create a new tier of European governance — not “Government" but “governance".

896. How does one think of the European Union? It is a political system, and political scientists talk about the different types of political system. The EU meets the criteria for a political system. It has institutions: you will be familiar with the Commission, the Council, the European Parliament, the courts and others. A whole range of groups are trying to influence the system from outside — a range of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), business groups, trade unions, women’s groups, environmental groups, and so on. The system of European governance creates policy outputs. We need to ask where it is producing policy outputs and why it does so at those levels. In other words, we need to ask why they are in the treaties, because it is the treaties that provide the answers to those questions.

897. If we examine the policy base that currently exists in the European Union, we can divide it into three main types. First, there are exclusive competences — there are only five of those. They are the areas where the Commission is in main control. It includes the huge area of the euro and the European Central Bank. The Commission also negotiates trade policies on behalf of the member states, which they then sign off. It is also responsible for the lovely and exciting area of maintaining the customs union, and the even more juicy area of conservation and fisheries. The fifth such aspect is huge: it is the whole area of competition policy and antitrust, which includes mergers, cartels and state aids. There is not too much that regional bodies can do with those policies. They can try to contact and influence the Commission.

898. In the second group, there is quite a bit more scope to try to influence. Those are shared competences, and they include agriculture, environment and fisheries. In those areas, the Commission, Council and Parliament work together with national assemblies, regional assemblies and a whole range of interest groups that are trying to influence policy outcomes.

899. In the third area, EU influence is marginal. It includes health and education. Traditionally, they always have been areas of member-state control. They are huge and costly, and will remain under member-state control. The EU does, however, dabble on the fringes of them.

900. One point to consider is whether people view the EU as important and whether they are aware of its output. When candidates canvass the voting public, I guess that the main issues that they are asked about are housing, education, health, and social security. The EU does not really deal with those issues at all, and that will not change in a major way. Therefore, how do we as citizens of this region, or other regions, begin to identify with the European Union?

901. One thing that strikes me about this part of the world in particular, and the UK for that matter, is that the level of knowledge about the EU system — what it does and why, and what it should or should not do — is pretty low. Among the old 15 member states, we have one of the worst records for lack of knowledge about, and poor attitudes towards, the European Union.

902. Communication is a problem. Who communicates what the EU actually does? Who should communicate that information? It is debatable whether it should be the Commission or the member states. Is there a role for regional authorities, such as the Northern Ireland Assembly, to look at and explain what the European Union does? Given that the South is moving towards a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, how do we begin to explain — not sell — the EU to people, and enlighten and inform them about what it is, why it is there, and why it matters, or why it should matter?

903. That is my basic introduction. The Committee can develop those points from here.

904. The Chairperson: Your presentation has been very thought-provoking. You identified a particular problem with people’s attitude towards, and information about, the EU. Are we at the bottom of the league in that respect? Do you sense that other European countries have an equally lazy or poor attitude towards the EU, or are we pretty much the worst?

905. Dr McGowan: The European Commission produces a twice-yearly report on the Eurobarometer surveys, which is a good starting tool to use when looking at opinions on the European Union. There are issues with regard to the latest member states. However, of the old EU 15 member states, before the latest wave of enlargement, the two countries that were at the bottom of the list as regards knowledge of, and interest in, the European Union were the UK, which was at the very bottom, and Sweden. Ireland was placed much higher on the list.

906. The Chairperson: Do you think that that is a matter for the United Kingdom, as the sovereign state that represents this part of Europe, to address? Is it the UK Government’s role to promote better awareness of, and uptake within, Europe, or is there a clearly defined role for a regional assembly, such as the Northern Ireland Assembly, to do so?

907. Dr McGowan: It can come from both sides. First, the UK Government, as with all Governments, should be responsible for trying to explain what they have signed up to and what the EU is all about and why it is needed. I do not think that that can come from the European Commission. In the mid-1970s, the UK held its only referendum in its history to date for people to decide whether it should remain in the European Economic Community, as it was called then. The European Commission campaigned for a “Yes" vote in that referendum, but it was rapped on the knuckles afterwards and told that it could not do that. Certainly, since the UK joined in 1973, the UK Government — Labour and Conservative Administrations — have never really tried to explain, in any systematic fashion, what the EU is all about.

908. The Government’s task now is a huge mountain to climb, when one considers the opinion polls commissioned by newspapers about the UK joining the euro, or signing up to the Constitution, which has now been reworked and become the Lisbon Treaty. If there were to be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in the UK, it looks as though it would be lost by a rather large majority. In a regional sense, there is also scope to identify the areas that are crucial to this part of the world and then to say why the EU matters in that particular policy area.

909. Mr I McCrea: I thank you for coming along. You obviously have an extensive knowledge of European issues.

910. What role does Queen’s University specifically play in working with other universities across Europe? For example, how can students gain more knowledge from working in other parts of Europe or with other European universities? Is much of that happening currently?

911. Dr McGowan: I can speak only for my part of the university, but there are other schools in the university that may have other schemes. The School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University has a series of agreements with other universities across the European Union that allows us to send students to them for a semester or a year abroad. The issue is that it is really difficult to get students to go. I do not know why that is the case.

912. Money could also be an issue but, because the arrangement is reciprocal in many ways, the students do not have to pay anything extra beyond the cost of living, so we really encourage them to go wherever possible. One of the real issues with a lot of students is the language element. We note that more and more students doing politics do not have a language at A level. In the past, it was possible to have seminar classes in which we looked at ‘El País’, ‘Le Monde’, or ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine’ for Spanish, French, and German views of different aspects of policy, but that possibility seems to have gone for the moment. What we have in place is a series of options whereby students can go to Scandinavia and are taught in English alongside their Swedish and Dutch counterparts. The language issue is very important as it may give students a competitive advantage. One could make the case that we need to get more students learning languages again.

913. Mr Molloy: Thank you very much for coming to the Committee. Can you give us examples of how Queen’s University is drawing down funding from Europe to develop its role in Europe and its involvement with European institutions?

914. In relation to the implications of the Lisbon Treaty being ratified, do you think that we should have a referendum here as well?

915. Dr McGowan: That depends on what you want the outcome to be. The Lisbon Treaty, as a document, is absolutely uninspiring. It would be wonderful to stand back and watch, as a casual observer, politicians here try to sell it on the doorsteps when it comes to election time. As specialist academics studying the EU system, we can understand why the Governments think that the treaty makes sense, and we can try to work out whether they are right. However, to explain that document, one really needs to know how the EU works at the moment. Again, opinion polls indicate that people do not seem to know that.

916. We talk about why public opinion is so low — that could be the fault of the Government; however, if you think of the newspapers that you may read, it is clear that the media has a huge role to play in that. The media’s defence is always that it gives people what they want to read, but that creates a circle in many ways — the media should be informing people as well. The only paper that I think covers the EU in any detailed fashion is the ‘Financial Times’, which is the paper that I advise or encourage my students to at least look at. There seems to be so little extensive coverage in much of the UK media.

917. I cannot say what sort of grants the rest of Queen’s University has. There are various Seventh Framework programme (FP7) projects under way across the university. The School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy is a Jean Monnet European Centre of Excellence, which means that we have had funding from the European Commission to do various educational programmes and to assist with various modules. We have recently submitted another proposal under the Jean Monnet scheme. As a school we have close links to different parts of the European Commission. One of my colleagues is part of a European research network that holds a multimillion award from the European Union, under FP7, to look at the issue of gender in the European Union, but that is something that we would need to go much further with. The university can provide the Committee with exact information on all the various projects that are funded from Europe currently.

918. Mr Molloy: We are often accused of gold-plating legislation. Is there any indication that the British Government gold-plated more legislation than any of the other European Governments?

919. Dr McGowan: That would require an area-by-area breakdown, looking at what each of the Governments actually does with the legislation. The European Union is a good safety valve for Government as well — sometimes it is good for Government to blame the EU for something, or deny all knowledge that something is their fault. Sometimes one would like to get some of those Minister back and really give them —

920. Mr Elliott: Politicians would never do that.

921. Dr McGowan: A classic and relevant example is fisheries policy. Quite often, press reports indicate that the European Commission is responsible for fisheries policy. However, it is not the European Commission that takes decisions here — it is the Council and the fisheries Ministers. Bad-news stories are quite often blamed on the EU. However, let us not get too carried away — there are certain things that the EU should be criticised for; it is not a perfect organisation and it has its faults. We should learn about the faults and the good things at the same time.

922. The Chairperson: Steady now. We do not want the truth to be told. [Laughter.]

923. Mr Elliott: Dr McGowan, your presentation was very interesting. The question that always exercises me is how can we, as a regional Government and Assembly, influence decision-making in Europe? That is the crux of the issue — a lot of our legislation comes from Europe. How do we influence that at an early stage?

924. Dr McGowan: Representatives from a region such as this have to sit down and identify which policy areas are particularly important for them as a region. The EU has a huge remit: it covers everything from agriculture all the way through to veterinary standards. It is simply impossible to consider all of those policy areas. In many ways, representatives must cherry-pick which policies they think have the most impact or are the most useful to this particular part of the world. Those could be agriculture, fisheries or environment policies.

925. The representatives would then begin a process of linking in, because — taking the environment as an example — they do not want to be in a situation in which they are being reactive. The UK Government will have been involved in, and will have agreed to, the laws that come from Brussels, and, before we know it, a directive will be staring us in the face and will be implemented. Representatives here must be more proactive by getting together — the centrepiece could be the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels — and identifying certain policies as they emerge, so that their concerns about the issues are voiced at an early stage.

926. They could also work with other bodies that are represented in Brussels. To what extent are the three MEPs involved in the process of policy-making in the EU institutions? It is also important for the MEPs to establish good relations with the EU institutions such as parts of the European Commission that are directly relevant — for example, the environment or agriculture. In addition, that is important because there is a great deal of interaction among the EU states. That happens all the time, so goodwill could be built up with other states regarding the way that we do business. A large part of how the EU works is from goodwill and trade-offs.

927. The member states essentially control the system through all the various committees and the comitology committees and the Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coreper). They are trading off and bargaining all the time. I have never seen it done, but if one polled EU members and drew up a balance sheet, I very much doubt that all member states would tick every single box, from agriculture all the way down to veterinary standards. They would be in favour of some aspects and against others, but the overall assessment would be that the process is worthwhile because they are getting something out of it.

928. It is about trying to engage with institutions by using our local representatives — those could be the MEPs or members of the Committee of the Regions, or the Economic and Social Committee. However, it is also really important to build relations with other parts of Europe, particularly other parts or regions of the European Union that may have exactly the same type of issues confronting them as we do.

929. For example, a region that has always appeared to be very similar to here is part of the former East Germany called Mecklenburg-East Pomerania. It has roughly the same size of population, and is heavily agricultural. It is also having major problems with unemployment because no main producers are based there. Those links should be made.

930. To give the Committee an idea, there are currently about 250 different regional authorities resident in Brussels. They are all trying to network and build up contacts so that they can influence policy. If, for example, a Directorate General environment issue arose, those groups would try to shape the policy and voice their opposition to certain aspects of the proposals.

931. Mrs D Kelly: Thank you. I welcome Lee here this afternoon. Do you believe that the Barroso task force report highlighted opportunities that have not yet been grasped; particularly in relation to the Seventh Framework programme and the opportunity for universities? What is Queen’s doing about that?

932. Dr McGowan: I can only give you the view of the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy. We are heavily involved in FP7 research, and some of my colleagues are considering the possibilities of research applications under the next framework programme, which will come into play in 2010-11. An essential part of securing that funding is linking and building networks with other universities. That has been part of the way that universities have changed themselves over the past 10 or 20 years. Networks with other universities are crucial to obtaining the grants from the European Union or other bodies on which we depend heavily.

933. There is a lot to be done with regard to seizing opportunities in the Barroso task force report. The report is a good foundation on which to build, but more action on the ground is needed.

934. The Chairperson: Thank you very much, Dr McGowan. Your evidence has been very informative.

935. Dr McGowan: It was fast and furious.

936. The Chairperson: For all that, it was very good.

937. Dr McGowan: There are so many issues to cover.

938. The Chairperson: The Committee may well seek either clarification or further information from you on a range of the issues that we discussed. The Committee may also try to obtain from the university some information on practical engagement that is has on drawing down funds and engaging in programmes with Europe.

939. Dr McGowan: The person to contact is Trevor Newsom, who deals with all external links and grants that go through the university.

940. The Chairperson: That is very helpful. Thank you.

11 March 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Bernard Durkan TD
Mr Pat Breen TD
Mr Ronan Gargan
Ms Joanna Tuffy TD

Joint Committee on European Affairs

Mr Joe Costello TD
Mr Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD
Mr John Perry TD

Joint Committee on European Scrutiny

941. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): Good afternoon. I welcome representatives from the Oireachtas, who are here to provide evidence on European matters. As you know, our Committee is conducting an inquiry into how best the Northern Ireland Assembly can co-operate and link with Europe, particularly Brussels and Strasbourg.

942. On our recent trip to the Oireachtas, members sought an overview of operations. We wanted to invite you to share your experience and ideas for co-operation. We had the pleasure to host members of the Oireachtas for lunch, and, at the outset, we took the opportunity to reflect on and remember the weekend’s difficult events in Northern Ireland. We thank you for that expression of sympathy, and we know that your best wishes and assistance are with us during these difficult times. We hope that we can make significant progress through political leadership, which is being met in other places.

943. Mr Bernard Durkan TD (Joint Committee on European Affairs): Thank you for your hospitality today. It is a pleasure to be here, and we hope to arrange many more bilateral events in the future, from which we will both benefit.

944. I am accompanied today by John Perry of Fine Gael, who is chairman of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, which scrutinises legislation, directives or instruments that emanate from Brussels and ascertains their positive or negative impact on our respective constituents. That is important, because many of those instruments and legislative proposals emanate initially from our own Government Ministers. Therefore, they appear at a higher level but eventually return to parliamentarians. John’s committee researches those areas thoroughly.

945. Ronan Gargan is the only permanent representative of the Government in attendance today. He is our policy adviser, and is excellent in that role. Members should look at him carefully, because he will reach great heights in the service nationally and internationally. [Laughter.] That is a fact.

946. Joe Costello is a veteran of many campaigns and, as members can see, is surviving well. He is a member of the Joint Committee on European Affairs and the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, and is a member of the Labour Party.

947. Joanna Tuffy is also a member of the Labour Party. She is new to Parliament and is in only her second session. She is an effective and dedicated member of the Joint Committee on European Affairs and has a great future.

948. Pat Breen’s length of service is medium. He is a member of Fine Gael, and has been around long enough to have made an impact but is young enough to be energetic about doing so in the future. He comes from County Clare along the western seaboard and brings the enthusiasm and freshness of the breeze from the Atlantic. [Laughter.]

949. Aengus Ó Snodaigh is the quintessential Dubliner. His accent gives that away somewhat. He is a member of Sinn Féin and is a medium-term campaigner. He has been in the House long enough to gain much experience. All members are dedicated and have worked extremely hard in the committee — they would not be here today otherwise.

950. We are both glad and sorry to be here today. We are glad because our attendance fulfils the ambition that arose on your previous visit to Dublin. We are also glad to be able to advance further the mutual benefits that will accrue from continued dialogue of this nature at the Committee, between the two parliaments and in Brussels. I will speak more about that later.

951. We are sorry about the sad circumstances in which we find ourselves. As you already said — and we already commented on this over lunch — it was particularly disappointing and sad when the news of the past number of days emerged. It was disappointing because we had all hoped that we had put that behind us, and it was sad because that obviously did not appear to be case.

952. It was also sad because many people had put an awful lot of effort into achieving a peaceful process and into creating the ability to work together for the betterment of the country — all parts of this island. Furthermore, it was sad and tragic for the bereaved. The attacks were mindless and heartless and lacked anything other than the desire to be destructive, which was the only possible outcome.

953. We compliment you for the mature way in which the political establishment — as we are all now called — handled this particularly tragic situation. It was hugely important that there was a calm response. It was also hugely important that all the parties here and in the South took the same line — to be supportive, condemnatory and to stand together. Out of all adversity and tragedy comes some good. That particular test has already come and gone. We hope that we and you in particular do not have talk on that subject ever again. That would be a huge achievement. It is important that we recognise that so far we have gone well, but that we have not yet gone all the way home. However, it is hugely beneficial for society when all sides sit down together and continue in that direction.

954. I return to the work the Joint Committee on European Affairs and the degree to which we can be of some assistance to you. We think that we can be of some assistance. We have been at this a long time. I have been a member of the Joint Committee on European Affairs for almost 30 years. You will be glad to know that my hair was a different colour when I started off, as was the hair of many of my contemporaries whom I met over the years.

955. It is important to know — and I mentioned this point over lunch — that we parliamentarians need to enter into dialogue regularly with each other on a bilateral and community basis. If we do not make the effort but others do by travelling to Europe and by being absent from their constituencies at particular times, they will establish contacts in our absence. Those contacts can be very important, simply because they may hear something in passing at a meeting, or on the fringe of a meeting, that appears suddenly as policy at a later stage. Such information is often regurgitated and then emanates from the machinery as a solid piece of policy. If people do not participate and influence, they will not have a say.

956. Our secretariat and policy adviser mentioned that it might be a good idea if we were to exchange our reports in the future. Certainly, it will not be difficult for us do so. That kind of mutual exchange will keep you up to date with what we are doing, and it will also be beneficial to us. I am sure that John Perry will say something further about that.

957. My last point is that the evolution of the European project is hugely important to us all. It is important to all the people on this island and to the people of Europe. Each member state, small or large, in the European Union has a major role to play. However, the size of that role is dependent on the degree to which each member state is prepared to participate, because participation is what it is all about. If representatives are present and make their case, people will respect that. People may not always get that the response that they want, but at least they will have had the opportunity to make their case. They will also be armed with the information that is necessary to respond to other people’s cases if and when the time comes.

958. I will not delay the Committee any further, other than to say that we will be more than happy to help you out in any way with your work. I have no doubt that our relationship will be beneficial to the country at large, and to Europe as a whole. Thank you for listening me.

959. Mr John Perry TD (Joint Committee on European Scrutiny): Thank you for inviting our delegation here, and thank you for the wonderful lunch and the tour of this magnificent Building. I concur with my Chairman, Mr Durkan; on behalf of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, I condemn in the strongest possible terms the murders in Antrim and Craigavon. Our sincere condolences go to the families of those murdered, and our best wishes go to those who have been injured. We look forward to seeing those responsible brought swiftly to justice. Violence has been utterly rejected by the people of this island, and we stand united in ensuring that those evil people will not undermine the will of our people to live in peace. That will be the sentiment of everyone on the island of Ireland, and certainly those in the Oireachtas.

960. The Chairperson: We thank you for that expression of sympathy.

961. Mr Perry: The Oireachtas’s Joint Committee on European Scrutiny was set up in the aftermath of the last general election. Our officials provided the Committee with a document outlining our EU scrutiny system, so I will be brief, and there will be more time for discussion on questions that may arise.

962. I will explain the work of our Committee and give you a flavour of the EU issues that we are considering. The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny implements the European Union (Scrutiny) Act, 2002, which places a statutory obligation on the Government to provide draft EU directives, regulations and decisions, together with an information note on the scrutiny to the Committee. We examine the draft EU legislation and information provided by the Government, and decide whether it needs further scrutiny. That decision is made on the basis of whether the proposal is politically or legally important and could have a significant impact on Ireland’s interests. If it is decided to further scrutinise a proposal, the Committee will either forward the draft legislation to the relevant sectoral committees to undertake that scrutiny, or decide to undertake the work itself.

963. If the Committee decides to scrutinise further a proposal, it usually invites the views of the relevant stakeholders, such as business groups and trade unions, as well as seeking further information from the Government. That can be done through public hearings, which have been very effective. On the basis of those hearings and other views gathered, the Committee will produce a report on the draft EU law, which will usually contain recommendations. The relevant Minister is obliged to take due regard of those recommendations when negotiating on behalf of Ireland in Brussels.

964. The principle of subsidiarity is one of the guiding principles of the work of the Committee. In that context, we welcome the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty aimed at enhancing the role of the national Parliaments and giving them a say on EU legislation at the commencement of any directive. There is some discussion on how the scrutiny system could be improved. That follows on from the recommendations of the Subcommittee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union, which was set up after last year’s referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny is in discussions with the Government on the implementation of those recommendations.

965. As regards the day-to-day work, the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny is considering a draft legislative proposal on the common system of VAT in respect of combating tax evasion. Only yesterday, we had discussions on that proposal with the Department of Finance, the Revenue Commissioners and other business organisations on the relevance of fraud in the VAT system.

966. We will shortly begin our examination of the six-monthly report on EU issues prepared by each Government Department, and we can forward those to the Committee. It will include my colleagues’ recommendations on the due diligence carried out on a report on what we feel would impact adversely on the trading business in Ireland, and which could also have an impact on Northern Ireland. We will forward all those reports to the Committee.

967. The overall aim of that work is to scrutinise the position of the Government on EU issues, particularly draft EU legislation, to keep our Ministers accountable and to inform and engage the public on important EU issues, which is the real issue of the Lisbon Treaty. There was no exchange: directives were coming in, they were not being debated, and it was having a big impact on people who were very cynical about the urban issue.

968. That is a brief overview of our work, and I will be happy to take any questions. Basically, the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny’s concept is that directives should be brought in, scrutinised and, once the report has been concluded, it should be debated in Parliament or the Seanad Éireann. If elected representatives have an interest in EU draft law and wish to engage further, they can mark it down for months ahead, it can be debated in the chamber, and it can then be brought into the public domain. When it comes to getting media interest, it can be difficult to get issues into the mainstream newspapers, but having an issue debated in the chamber can help with that.

969. The Chairperson: That is very helpful; thank you both for your opening statements.

970. Mr Shannon: Thank you very much; it is nice to have you here to engage on issues that are of mutual interest to us in Northern Ireland and to you in the Republic. The inquiry is important for us, because it may give us some direction as to what action we as a Committee intend to take on European issues. We have done the tour, so to speak, of all the different legislatures, including the House of Lords, Westminster, down South and in Europe. That has given us a flavour of where we are going and, at the same time, given us some pointers as well.

971. The papers that we have been supplied with refer to a forum that has been established by the Irish Government that brings TDs, MEPs and special interest groups together. That is not something that we have looked at before or, I should say, has not been brought to our attention before. Do you see it as being beneficial, or does it simply add another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy?

972. My second question relates to the issue of local councils, which is very important to the Committee. We have had submissions from Belfast City Council, Londonderry city council and Craigavon Borough Council. Obviously, there is going to be a change to the number of local authorities here. Therefore, I am keen to know how you interact with your local councils. That is important to us, given the changes that will happen with implementation of the review of public administration (RPA) in 2011, when there will be 11 councils.

973. By the way, our papers refer to 15 councils — the DUP had originally hoped for 15 councils, but we are now going to have 11.

974. Mr Spratt: Francie wanted 15 as well.

975. Mr Molloy: I am not a member of the DUP though. [Laughter.]

976. The Chairperson: We were aware of that. [Laughter.]

977. Mr Shannon: It is important to know about what interaction takes place, because there are different levels of interaction. Europe influences us all and, as we were discussing during lunch, a lot of people see Europe as being away over there while we are over here. How do we bring it closer? How can we in Northern Ireland interact with our councils on a more recognisable level so that they can feel that they are part of the process?

978. Mr B Durkan: From what you said, it seems that you have very little to learn. Your assessment of the situation is indicative of a deep and well-founded knowledge of the whole political system.

979. Mr Joe Costello TD (Joint Committee on European Scrutiny): I am a member of the National Forum on Europe, which was established after the Nice Treaty. It should not be forgotten that Ireland voted against the Nice Treaty on the first occasion. Therefore, we have a precedent for voting against treaties in Europe — the Lisbon Treaty is the second occasion.

980. After the Nice Treaty, we brought forward legislation that we hoped would bring Europe closer to its citizens. The first issue was scrutiny; we had to scrutinise everything coming from Europe. Given that more legislation emanates from Europe than from the Dáil, that legislation obviously has major consequences for the country. Parallel to that, we decided to set up the National Forum on Europe at the same time. The intention of the forum was to try to broaden interest in Europe, so that we could engage the citizenry in European affairs.

981. That forum consists of various stakeholders, including politicians from all parties, representatives of the trade union movement and non-governmental organisations. Every time that the forum meets, an advertisement is put in the national newspapers and the public are invited to come along and listen to the deliberations, most of which take place in Dublin Castle.

982. European issues of the day are discussed. Since the Lisbon Treaty, the forum has begun a reassessment of its work and its functions. It has broken down the broader forum, in which everyone had a chance to speak. It is now conducting its business through workshops and examining how it is going to go forward. The forum provides an opportunity to engage as many areas of society as possible in European matters. Therefore, it tries to bring Europe closer to the ordinary citizen to let them express their views.

983. Mr Perry: Local authorities have a very important role in the Border Midland, and Western Regional Assembly. The involvement of all politics is local. One the issue of directives, the Council of the Regions has been invited to appear before the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, and it has its own points on the European legislation that affects local authorities. As Deputy Costello correctly stated, up until now, the difficulty that we have had with Europe was that the subsidiarity was not getting through and the local authorities felt that its input was not being taken on board.

984. That issue is now being addressed through the Border Midland, and Western Regional Assembly and the Council of the Regions, which has 15 county councillors attending on behalf of Ireland. We also link very effectively with the European liaison officer who is based in Brussels and who benchmarks work programmes that will have an immediate impact on local authorities. We are watching very cautiously, listening to all their views and working with them.

985. Ms Joanna Tuffy TD (Joint Committee on European Affairs): In its early days — around the time of the Nice Treaty — I was on the National Forum on Europe. It was very helpful in teasing out the issues after the first Nice Treaty, and it brought together people of different views and found some common ground. There was a lot of publicity around the beginnings of the forum; therefore, information about its discussions was getting out to the media. However, the forum no longer gets the publicity that it once did. A flaw with the forum is that although it engages politicians with different viewpoints, it is not as successful as it should be in engaging the broader public.

986. Mr Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD (Joint Committee on European Scrutiny): A question was asked about MEPs. MEPs are ex officio members of both Committees. All Irish MEPs can attend Dáil Committees and play a full role in Europe.

987. Mr B Durkan: That applies North and South.

988. Mr Ó Snodaigh: One of the problems is that our meetings are often held at the time when MEPs are in Brussels. However, over the past number of years, various MEPs have attended and they have, obviously, had a different role and a different outlook, which is useful for our Committee.

989. Mr B Durkan: A reference was made to the local authorities. During lunch, I mentioned that great merit is deemed to accrue from the abolition of what we call the dual mandate — the membership of local authorities and of national Parliaments etc. People should not be fooled into believing that ending dual mandates is of benefit; it is not. The longer that people retain membership of both places, the better.

990. Mr Shannon: Tell that to those two Ulster Unionist Party Members. [Laughter.]

991. The Chairperson: Dual mandates are a current issue here, Bernard. [Laughter.]

992. Mr B Durkan: I voiced that for the sake of equilibrium. [Laughter.]

993. The Chairman: I think you walked on something, but anyway, we will move on. [Laughter.]

994. Mr Spratt: I apologise that I was not at the lunch. I am member of the Policing Board and, I am afraid, things just went pear-shaped. I have to leave for a meeting at 3.00 pm with senior police officers. Thank you for attending. Again, I am sorry that I was not able to have lunch with you, because I enjoyed your hospitality on the day that we visited you.

995. My question is about how you influence legislation, particularly the process that you use. Given that you are a member state and we are a region, what advice can you give us as to what to put in place to best influence the issues that are important to Northern Ireland?

996. When we were in Scotland, the issue of liaison between Ireland — as a member state — and the rest of the United Kingdom was raised, particularly with regard to the areas such as fisheries, agriculture and others of importance to all these islands. We were trying to tease out of our Scottish counterparts how best we could co-operate in dealing with European legislation, given how much of it comes through regularly. We want to deal with what is important to the people that we represent.

997. Mr B Durkan: Our Committee meets the Minister, or a Minister of State, before he or she goes to a European Council meeting on general affairs. Therefore, the entire agenda for the meeting is trotted out to us on the Thursday, the meeting takes place on Monday or Tuesday and Committee members have an opportunity to tell the Minister what they think the attitude should be. It would be very unwise of a Minister not to give regard to the opinions of the Committee — if a Minister does disregard the opinion of Committee members, he or she is disregarding Parliament.

998. There are common interests in the island of Ireland, such as agriculture, manufacturing, job creation and the strategy on the Lisbon Treaty. If there is anything that you think that we can help with, we have no problem with raising it at our meetings. Do not say that I said this, but it might be beneficial for this Committee to have a Minister, or Minister of State, from Westminster to come over here and do the same thing. That would give you a direct input on the subject matter that unfolds before you.

999. Mr Perry: We had a huge debate on the directive on the reform of the common fisheries policy (CFP). The Federation of Irish Fishermen and others with vested interests attended a Committee meeting. We made a major recommendation to the Government on a directive that will have a massive transformation on the fishing rights around the whole coast of Ireland for 200 miles out to sea.

1000. Mr Costello: We also discussed the proposed ban on eel fishing.

1001. Mr Perry: Yes; the proposed ban on eel fishing is very controversial. That directive was not debated, and it means that there is a proposal to ban eel fishing in Ireland for over 50 years —

1002. Mr B Durkan: It is 99 years.

1003. Mr Perry: It would be helpful to share ideas about directives that impact on agricultural issues and coastal communities. Our Committee can influence the Government. The European officer in Brussels gives us a clear indication what legislation is coming down the track in nine months’ time, so we can give that legislation consideration, whereas previously, the legislation was not being fully analysed.

1004. The documentation leaves the European Commission and comes into the Dáil simultaneously, so we can clearly indicate the difficulties and the merits of that and consult those with vested interests. There is much benefit in bringing people in who have a vested interest in the directives and their impacts.

1005. Therefore, we can influence policy. The powers of our Committee include summoning a Minister and receiving oral evidence and written submissions. Therefore, it would be very unwise for those from the House of Commons who negotiate on European issues that relate to Northern Ireland to not listen to the issues. There are a lot of directives that impact equally here and in the Republic. As Deputy Durkan stated, sharing documents would benefit both countries.

1006. Mr Pat Breen TD (Joint Committee on European Affairs): I am also delighted to be here. We will remember the visit for many reasons, both good and bad. The Joint Committee on European Affairs is very powerful. At most of our meetings, the public gallery is full of people, be they journalists or those who take a keen interest in the subject that is being addressed. Last week, we received the EU Trade Commissioner, so we have an influence.

1007. Our role is to influence Government. A senior Minister regularly attends the Committee, as does the Minister for European Affairs, and that is very important. The Committee holds the Government to account on occasions, and, on another level, we hold Europe to account. As John rightly pointed out, we also look at EU policies and programmes.

1008. Therefore, it is a very influential Committee, and the media takes a keen interest in our deliberations and our meetings. We meet regularly — twice a week on occasions —and we travel quite a bit.

1009. Only last week, the Chairman and I travelled to Bosnia and looked at the whole area of European integration, particularly in Croatia, as it is waiting to get membership to the European Union. However, obviously, it has been put on hold because of the economic situation. Therefore, those countries look on Ireland as being a very successful island, and they want to learn from us. That is why it is important that we are here today and that we continue with these regular deliberations and dialogues.

1010. Mr Costello: Everything that my colleagues said is true. We can influence the existing arrangements through meeting the Minister and so on. However, if we were to accept the Lisbon Treaty, we would ratchet the issue up another notch because, for the first time, there would be a specific statutory role for Parliaments. That role would include involvement at every level in the processing of directives and legislation. Therefore, we would have an input into the work plan before it was fully put together by the Commission at draft level, and we could have an input right down the line.

1011. If a certain number of member states come together or agree, they can have an influence to the extent that they can actually stop something in its tracks if it is deemed to be in breach of subsidiarity; in other words, if the matter can best be dealt with at local or national level. Therefore, in the future, it will require much more co-operation and communication between member states. From that point of view, there is real opportunity for contact with this Committee, because we share so many issues that we might want to influence, and that we will have the statutory authority to influence, whereas, at the moment, member states take on board our suggestions largely by grace and favour. However, in relation to the issue of subsidiarity, if the Lisbon Treaty is accepted, they will have to take those suggestions on board by law.

1012. The Chairperson: Thank you very much. Unfortunately, I must pause the evidence session. Mr Spratt is about to leave us, and we understand the reasons for that. We require a quorum of five members to enable us to take decisions, and I have some other items of business that I must get through. We can continue to take evidence with four members.

On resuming —

1013. Mr Elliott: I welcome you to this afternoon’s Committee meeting. If you ever wish to rejoin the United Kingdom, let me know, and I will try and put in a good word for you. [Laughter.]

1014. In John’s introduction, he mentioned scrutinising a directive. What is the purpose of scrutinising a directive when it exists already and there is not much that can be done about it? Joe said that if the Lisbon Treaty had been accepted, regional Governments would have input into those legislative procedures before they were implemented in Europe. I thought that that was the case at the moment — that Governments did have an input. However, maybe that is not the case. Perhaps Joe could explain those differences.

1015. What is happening, or what is going to happen, on the issue of the Lisbon Treaty?

1016. The Chairperson: We will leave plenty of time for the witnesses to answer that last question. [Laughter.]

1017. Mr Perry: Your first point related to the aspect of scrutiny on a particular directive. That very much flows from the Commission to the member states, and is then open for debate, agreement and amendment. Deputy Costello alluded to the new yellow-card scheme that is contained in the Lisbon Treaty, which will mean that if that treaty is ratified and a number of countries make an objection within an eight-week period, a reservation can be placed on a particular piece of legislation. If that reservation receives a majority in excess of 50% in the Commission, renegotiation can take place.

1018. On the issue of directives and the element of contribution and the changes that can be made — the Government of the day have a mandate to negotiate. Between the initial print of the directive and the final signing off by the Commission, it is quite a varied document. That is why it is critically important to enter negotiations and get an imprimatur on that document at the earliest possible stage. It is by no means a fait accompli at that stage.

1019. Mr Ó Snodaigh: Initially, directives are in draft form. One of the examples that we discussed this week was the working time directive which has been around for God knows how long. When directives are in draft form, it allows us to get expert evidence from various interest groups, such as the business community and the trade union movements. We can then refer the draft directive to, for example, the Committee on Enterprise and the Committee on Health, which allows them to do their work and to present their findings to the Minister who will negotiate on the directive and make the necessary changes to make it palatable in Ireland. After all, we are there get the best deal.

1020. There are probably about 500 pieces of legislation that come before the Committee each year, about 400 of which deal with quite technical, minor changes that do not require any major investigation. In fairness, the civil servants who work with the Committee produce a brief and explain in detail what the impact is likely to be. At any stage, we can call a halt and ask for further scrutiny or expert witnesses. For example, I am not an expert in agriculture as I was born in a city, but I might have some inkling that there is something wrong, untoward or unpalatable to Ireland in a particular directive. We can even ask the officials to explain issues in greater detail so that it is on record.

1021. Mr Elliott: In practical terms, is it quite difficult to do that on a fairly large scale, because of the large amount of documentation?

1022. Mr Ó Snodaigh: That is what I am saying — some 400 pieces of legislation are literally noted as correspondence, because they deal only with minor practical changes and with issues such as anti-dumping measures or extensions of trade agreements with other countries. There are quite a number that could virtually be ignored — although that may be the wrong word to use. Some 100 pieces of legislation require some level of scrutiny, and possibly 20 or so require the Committee to put a bit of time and effort in and seek expert advice.

1023. Another example was a directive that dealt with the safety of children’s toys. The Committee received a presentation from toy manufacturers and sellers in Ireland on the impact of that directive on their businesses. We were then able to forward those concerns, not only to the Minister, but to the Commission. The directive was then changed slightly based on what our Parliament and other Parliaments did, which allowed for greater discussion about the issue.

1024. Mr Costello: In a nutshell, all the directives that we debate are in draft form — the material has not been finalised. The point that I was making was that in the Lisbon Treaty, for the very first time, Parliament achieves the statutory recognition of being almost an institution of the European Union. At present, there is the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Government through the Council of Ministers. However, Parliament does not have a forum in Europe, as such. It does not have an entrée directly and it does not have the statutory entitlement to make its voice heard.

1025. Our Committee, which we set up by law, is saying that we are going to examine certain issues. Under the Lisbon Treaty, Parliament will, for the first time, have a statutory entitlement to have its say about everything that is coming through from Europe. That includes issues about subsidiarity when it deals with matters that relate to a member state. That is probably the most important new initiative in that respect.

1026. Mr B Durkan: The Joint Committee on European Affairs also makes amendments or submissions to the White or Green Papers that go to the Commission. Effectively, on issues of policy, that is how it is done — we respond to the draft proposals. It is important to think about the way in which, when it regurgitates and comes back to us, it is going to affect the economy at large, various sectors in the economy and what the public reaction is going to be.

1027. It is no good waiting until it becomes a directive and is swingeing down on top of us. On issues such as eel fisheries or coastal erosion, somebody may suddenly ask why such a silly directive was accepted. It is in such situations that the alertness of the Committee is hugely important.

1028. The points that have been made by my colleagues are absolutely right. However, it should be remembered that the Lisbon Treaty has an exit clause. Something that was not widely known was that if any member state wants to get out after the Lisbon Treaty is passed, it can do so — it can leave the European Union. Such a clause serves as a stark reminder that decisions always have to be taken, which is good as it helps to concentrate minds. It will concentrate minds, and without any shadow of doubt, it behoves us all to look at the issues in a different way.

1029. Whatever role the scrutiny committees and the European affairs committees play in each member state, there must be balance. If any member state decided to block all legislation, Europe could not evolve. Member states must have regard for others as to what it would be like if all legislation were to be blocked. Any blocking of legislation must be for the right reason. It cannot be done for negative or cynical reasons.

1030. Mr Ó Snodaigh: A question was asked about the Lisbon Treaty. I am not going to get into debate about the rights and wrongs of it, but the indications at this stage are that the guarantees that the Government have sought will be produced some time over the summer — if not before June — and that we will go to referendum again in October. The Lisbon Treaty was to be passed by December 2009 anyway, so a time frame exists.

1031. Mr Costello: In a deal that was done between the Council and the European Union, there was a condition that, if the Irish Government got the Lisbon Treaty passed by the end of October, the member states would be agreeable to certain assurances and certain guarantees. I suppose that the likelihood is that those would be agreed at the June Council meeting, and the campaign would take place from then until October, with the referendum taking place before the end of October.

1032. Mr Ó Snodaigh: The second Nice referendum was conducted prior to the October Council meeting. That allowed the Council to tidy it up and sign it in December.

1033. The Chairperson: Is it the case that the Government and those who support the adoption of the treaty will commend the changes and seek endorsement of the second referendum?

1034. Mr Costello: That is the case, but they are working behind the scenes at the moment. They will not divulge their progress, but they have to place legal structure on the guarantees that were given. Thereafter, they will refer the changes to the member states in order to ensure that they are happy with the formula, after which the people will vote.

1035. Mr Elliott: What will happen if it is rejected again?

1036. The Chairperson: Even I would not go there. [Laughter.]

1037. Mr Ó Snodaigh: It continues as is. [Laughter.]

1038. Mr Molloy: Thank you for attending. Although you have a referendum, we do not vote on European matters. Therefore, we cannot have an influence, no matter how much you sell the idea to us.

1039. In relation to Tom’s point, you need to move quickly if you want back into the British structures, because, given that it is breaking up, there will be little left. However, given that the Conservative Party will come into Government, who knows what will happen. [Laughter.]

1040. The Chairperson: We are covering a lot of ground. [Laughter.]

1041. Mr Molloy: The South seems to have benefited from European membership. I am unsure whether that is the case in reality. Can you offer any advice to the North about those benefits, given that the British Government make the applications?

1042. The evidence that you sent to the Committee outlines how you scrutinise — the early-warning notes. We heard similar comments at Westminster last week about scrutiny and how that process develops. How could we co-operate better in order to take advantage of the early-warning notes? How can we offer an input to those?

1043. Mr B Durkan: There are many areas of mutual benefit. We must recognise and be aware of each other’s existence. In that context, the North/South bodies can be of mutual benefit to the region. For many years, the region suffered because of the situation that prevailed, and the region is entitled to receive the economic, political and other benefits of the peace process.

1044. We can achieve those benefits through mutual recognition of regional disposition and through cross-referencing and swapping documentation in the way that you have suggested. We can do so effectively in the context of the North/South bodies and British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, because people in those groups have direct and indirect influence. That is the critical factor. We need to utilise those people to a much greater extent than we have done in the past.

1045. As I said earlier, we need Europe and we have benefited greatly from it. It is hugely important to the development, and the evolution of the development, of this island. Europe needs us, too. It needs the influence and words of smaller countries, and we need to relate to the other smaller countries, which have common interests. For example, we have a common interest with you in the agriculture, fisheries and industrial sectors. It is hugely important. For instance, we have the same employment issues in the Lisbon strategy. Those issues must be to the fore at all times, and we must use available routes to liaise with each other and keep up to speed with issues that we want to discuss. We need to be conscious of your needs, and vice versa.

1046. At the same time, our colleagues across the water in the UK must also be conscious of our needs. Equally, our friends in Germany, France, Italy and all the other EU countries must keep in mind the fact that they cannot march on without us.

1047. Europe comprises two types of country: the powerful ones and the smaller ones, and it would be much easier for the powerful countries if they were to march on without the rest of us. However, it would not be advisable for the smaller countries to allow that to happen. It is important for us to be aware that that danger is always there. It would be simple for that powerful block of larger countries to stride ahead, and they could use the smaller countries as trading partners in whatever way it suited them to do so. On this island, such a development would not be to anyone’s advantage, nor would it be to the advantage of the peaceful evolution of the European Union. We must keep that in mind at all times.

1048. Mr Perry: In order to deal effectively with the early-warning notices, to which Mr Molloy referred, the EU liaison officer is very important. The Committee’s secretariat examines the notices and identifies the ones that it believes will cause a difficulty.

1049. We can work closely with your staff, and a due diligence exercise has been carried out by the Committee’s legal team. It will undertake an effective evaluation. We send directives that come in to the 15 or so sectoral committees. If, for example, an education or environment directive comes in, we give the relevant scrutiny committee a six-week time frame within which to come back with a written submission containing its recommendations and analysis of the envisaged impact of the directive on the area for which it is responsible. If we feel that that has not been done sufficiently, we compile a further added-value report to consider the finer points.

1050. There are huge benefits to be gained from working on directives with the staff here. Directives are carefully analysed, and I am certain that the ones that we pick out are representative of the 15 main Departments in the state, and they will have an impact on any areas that are relevant. The early-warning notices and impact evaluations that are being carried out are making a big difference. The problem is that the debate about the deficit between Europe and Ireland did not taking place until 18 months ago.

1051. I work closely with Michael Connarty, who is the Chairperson of the House of Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee. In fact, we will visit him in the next couple of weeks. That Committee is superbly effective — one of the best among all the member states — and its members pride themselves on the work that they carry out. They go through every document with a fine-tooth comb. This Committee can be assured that we would be happy to work with it on this subject.

1052. Mr Breen: Rather than answering a question, can I ask the Committee a question? How much contact do you have with your colleagues in the House of Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee and with the Minister of State for Europe?

1053. The Chairperson: The Committee has no contact with Westminster Ministers. If it appears that a regulation might affect Northern Ireland, the system seems to be to refer it to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, who then consult the Executive and respond accordingly.

1054. Last week, we observed both the House of Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee and the House of Lords’ European Union Select Committee taking evidence, and we were impressed. We believe that we can fine-tune that process. In addition, we meet quarterly with representatives from Westminster and the other regional Assemblies/Parliaments in the UK, and we hope to expand on that contact. There is a lot of work to be done, and our inquiries will form the basis of our recommendations to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and the local Executive for improving on the present arrangements.

1055. Mr Breen: Is the present system working?

1056. The Chairperson: Our concern is that it is not, so we are keen to improve it.

1057. Mr Breen: I can see that.

1058. Mr Costello: Obviously, we cannot meet as regularly as we might wish, but it might not be a bad idea for the two Committees to meet quarterly. Of course, the two secretariats can meet all the time, ensuring that information goes in both directions, and we have our man in Brussels who keeps us well informed. Consequently, as we get information, it can be transmitted to you. We can then keep you informed on our progress on issues that we consider to be important or are examining or have sent out to different Departments.

1059. Finally, we can send you a copy of our completed reports, and you can identify issues that we have in common. We should perhaps discuss them right up to the level of plenary session in Parliament.

1060. Mr Elliott: You might pinch our ideas then.

1061. Mr Costello: We do not mind. We will share them with you.

1062. The Chairperson: That has been very helpful, indeed.

1063. Mr Shannon: My point is not a criticism; I just want to raise an issue. You referred to fisheries, and the gentlemen on the Committee would be very disappointed if I did not ask a question about fisheries. You said that you want to work closer with us and help us. We are a small region, and the fishing industry does not add up to big numbers in the overall economic picture, but it employs a large number of people and the effect on small communities is great.

1064. Quotas and so on were considered in the meetings in Brussels in December. Last year was the first time ever that we did not swap quotas with the Republic of Ireland for cod and other fish species. I am a wee bit concerned about that. I am not being critical; I am simply making a point. Today, you said that you will help our fisheries and agriculture sectors, yet last December, for the first time ever, there was no quota swap between the United Kingdom and yourselves. Such a swap would have directly helped the fishing industry in Northern Ireland.

1065. I will leave that thought with you. I am a great believer that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If you can prove to us that you will be able to improve on that, obviously this position of mutual interest will benefit us both.

1066. Mr Costello: You never said a word to us about it, Jim; it is a bit late now. [Laughter.]

1067. Mr Perry: Jim, you raised a very good point. Over the past couple of weeks, a major debate on that directive has taken place with all the fishing organisations, including the Federation of Irish Fishermen. A massive restriction is in place off the west coast of Ireland. The box is being closed down and re-evaluation is taking place, not to mention the future directive and the reform of the CFP.

1068. Mr Shannon: Yes; that is another issue.

1069. Mr Perry: That will have a massive impact in 2011. There will a great deal of regulation. There will be administrative fines as opposed to criminal sanctions, and that is a big issue at the moment for fishermen who are in breach of regulations. We can send you the document that is being analysed at the moment, and we are preparing a major submission. That is one of the most interesting meetings that we have had for quite a while. At Killybegs, £400 million worth of vessels are parked up. They cannot even get any days at seas, and it is a really emotive issue. In the absence of getting agreement on that matter, there is great unease at the moment with Government and fishermen. There is massive unrest. The incoming directive will look at the issue of the 200 miles off the coast of Ireland and re-evaluation. It affects other fishermen in the Irish box and the controls of other jurisdictions. The document on which we are working would be of value to you, and we will get it to you next week.

1070. Mr B Durkan: I agree entirely with you, Jim. I have said all that many times. We were disappointed as well by the particular outcome you mentioned. However, the point that John Perry made is absolutely accurate — we just have to fight harder. We have to put our foot in the door, and do so more vigorously and more insistently.

1071. I believe that what you need a conduit between the Assembly and Westminster, whereby the First Minister and deputy First Minister are made aware of proposals, and, in tandem with them, you are made aware of those proposals, so that you all know what is coming down the track. Then you can have the same meeting that you have now to fulfil the same role. That is hugely beneficial for both parts of this island.

1072. By the way, the UK and the Republic of Ireland have common interest on most issues, not necessarily in relation to a cheap food policy, for example, because we are food producers on this island. However, the French would share common interests with us in the agricultural sector, and we must bear that in mind. The Spanish and the Portuguese have interests in fishing. They would not have common interests in relation to fishing rights, not by a long, long shot. We need to keep those matters in mind. That does not mean to say that we are going to dominate them or take over, but neither does it mean that they are going to dominate us. You are right about the sensitivities around fishing, and the situation has gone on for far too long without somebody putting the foot in the door and exerting influence from the national perspective.

1073. The Chairperson: Thank you very much for your excellent contributions. We look forward to receiving the transcript of the meeting, a copy of which we will provide for you. We also look forward to receiving the follow-up information from you. If you wish to provide any outstanding information to the Committee, the secretariat will arrange for you to do so.

1074. It has been my privilege and a great honour to welcome you to Parliament Buildings for this helpful session, and I look forward to that continuing. Thank you for attending and for you expressions of condolences about what has happened over the past number of days. I wish you a safe and happy journey onwards.

25 March 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Peter Bunting
Mr John O’Farrell

Irish Congress of Trade Unions

1075. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): I remind members that mobile phones should be switched off. I move now to our next presentation and evidence session, which is with representatives from the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). On behalf of the Committee, I am pleased to welcome Mr Peter Bunting, the assistant general secretary, and his colleague, Mr John O’Farrell. Thank you for your attendance; you are very welcome. The usual format is that you make a brief opening statement before making yourselves available for questions. We anticipate that the session will last approximately 25 minutes, although we are not bound to that — we are at the discretion of members.

1076. Mr Peter Bunting (Irish Congress of Trade Unions): Chairman, thank you very much for the invitation. We have supplied the Committee with a written submission.

1077. The Chairperson: That has been included in the information pack for members.

1078. Mr Bunting: Briefly, I will run through that submission and include some additional points which, perhaps, might stimulate some questions.

1079. In relation to the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly in European issues, our concern has two main broad thrusts. First, there is the formation of policy at a European level. Secondly, there is the execution or implementation of that policy across Northern Ireland. We are deeply concerned about the employment of European Union funds, and that is the primary focus of the Barroso task force with which, I am sure, you are familiar. In many senses, from the trade unions’ perspective, and from workers’ perspectives, we believe that there is a whole other area, which centres on employment law.

1080. As you are aware, over the past number of years, employment law has generally emanated from the European Union — the centre of what is termed as social Europe — specifically in relation to matters such as redundancy takeovers, transfer undertakings, insolvency, and, of course, working times, part-time workers, young people and pregnant women. Another reason for bringing that policy area to your attention is the fact that there does not appear to be sufficient means for ensuring that the Assembly has an input. You guys have autonomy over employment law in Northern Ireland. Rather than slavishly follow the interpretation of the GB Government, you could enhance the quality of life, and the protection of workers, in Northern Ireland. That is something, I believe, in which the Assembly could be a major impetus, particularly in relation to how UK policy is determined.

1081. On employment matters, we would like to see a system introduced, and an arrangement between the Assembly and Westminster, around employment rights and employment matters which originate from the EU and how they are transposed. You will be aware that the Westminster Government have sought to opt-out of the working time directive, putting them out of kilter with many of the rest of the central European countries. The directive on employment agency workers has come with the compromise of a 12-week clause, and the information and consultation directive is another compromise. In many senses, the British Government have sought derogation, and we believe that that is not in line with the European social model as envisaged by those, certainly in the trade union movement, who are very supportive of the European Union.

1082. At times, the trade union movement is schizophrenic on many issues, and Europe can be one of those. However, our organisation in the Republic is not bad — compared to some of our affiliated unions in Northern Ireland.

1083. The future regulation of the European energy industry is something that exercises our minds. Although there are wonderful solutions in Europe with regard to breaking up monopolies, Northern Ireland is a very small market, and so there is no room for a multiplicity or complication in that particular industry across Northern Ireland, or on the island at large, and that is something that we are concerned about.

1084. The other area is the structural funds, which brings us back to the Barroso task force. The task force identified many of the same economic remedies that were propositioned by the trade union movement, which are linked to education and the high number of economically inactive in Northern Ireland — quite a dysfunctional economy in the sense of the small size of the private sector, and also the fact that our education system appears to let us down at times. For example, 47% of pupils leave school without the basic threshold of seeking employment with five GCSEs. There is also the 24% or 25% of people who are deemed to be illiterate or innumerate. In many senses, we share many of the findings of the Barroso task force on the economy.

1085. With regard to deriving the benefits from European Union structural funds and the Peace programmes, those are central to how local partnership arrangements across Northern Ireland work. We had difficulty at the beginning with the amalgamation of council areas, whereby the trade union movement and social partnerships, which had played a huge role at the beginning of Peace I and Peace II, were at times excised from some of those arrangements. As far as I am aware, they are now back on track after engagement with the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB).

1086. Yesterday, we had a meeting of the social partners in Northern Ireland — economists, those from all aspects of the energy industry, the chambers of commerce, the CBI, the trade union movement, and the community and voluntary sector — to discuss what could be termed as a new deal, which would consider the whole business of green energy, sustainable job creation, retention of jobs and growing innovative products in Northern Ireland. We were informed at that meeting that a terrible lot of funding is going begging in Europe under the Seventh Framework Programme for Research, particularly in relation to green economic competitiveness.

1087. There are various rafts of money available under EU sustainable programmes for projects linked to energy efficiency as priorities, with help getting into sustainable employment and training in sustainability. All of those issues are crucial as to how Northern Ireland should avail in the economic downturn, so that, when the upturn begins, we are in the position of being able to benefit from that. From the representations and views expressed yesterday by those who are far more knowledgeable on the subject than I am, those funds are not being drawn down in Northern Ireland while they are available, and that is a problem.

1088. As we concentrate our minds as to how best we should grow that economy in Northern Ireland, there are opportunities available under INTERREG IV. As you and I know, INTERREG IV and IVa cover not only Northern Ireland, but the Republic of Ireland and western Scotland, with an emphasis on maritime issues. Surely that gives us an opportunity to build a number of projects worth millions of pounds that would create some degree of sustainability in linkages with our natural hinterlands, such as the Republic of Ireland and western Scotland, and we should be attempting to achieve that.

1089. We should be concentrating on the reimplementation of the Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry, and finding out what funds are available under a tourist link. Many of us are aware of other natural linkages between western Scotland and Northern Ireland — both culturally and linguistically — and there are other areas. We see those as opportunities, and we should be grasping those opportunities now.

1090. It is not mentioned in our papers, but we are advocating that the Assembly should appoint someone to look after EU issues — either an external Minister, an EU Minister, or an EU access fund Minister.

1091. Without another wonderful job being created, someone should be responsible for accessing the funding that is available across all the Departments. The European globalisation adjustment fund is designed to help workers who have lost their jobs as a result of fundamental changes in international trade that were triggered by globalisation. It is 50% funded, and some £500 million is available through the fund each year — the threshold used to be £1,000 million.

1092. Seagate had 900 employees, and those people could have availed of the fund’s provisions for job-search assistants, occupational guidance, training, certification of acquired experience, job search and mobility allowances. I am not aware of DEL, DETI or any other Department having availed of that European funding, and I have not seen that mooted anywhere in the media. Opportunities for Northern Ireland seem to be going a-begging for whatever reason, and we are not availing of all the available European funding.

1093. The UK Government has essentially said that all structural funding should be directed towards eastern Europe and that prosperous member states — such as us — should be responsible for looking after poorer regions. We do not think that the UK Government should be allowed to do that, because there are multiple areas of deprivation in Northern Ireland, both urban and rural. Indeed, rural poverty is often forgotten, with a lot more emphasis placed on Belfast-centric or urban poverty.

1094. There is also some degree of increase in staffing levels. I have visited the Northern Ireland Office in Brussels, and its staff are very efficient. The office places particular emphasis on agriculture — which, hopefully, incorporates fishing — and the environment. That is to the detriment of the economy, funding and educational arrangements such as Erasmus programmes.

1095. There is jaundiced view of Europe in Britain and, indeed, within our movement, which is in contrast to the Republic of Ireland’s view of Europe. Its positive view of Europe was a contributory factor to the growth of the Republic of Ireland’s economy between 1994 and 2001 before the construction industry made it self-sustainable. That has collapsed now, but it should never be forgotten that the Republic of Ireland created 900,000 jobs and doubled the employment figure. How many of those jobs remain?

1096. A lot of the infrastructure, which dramatically changed the landscape of the Republic of Ireland, was created through the pro-European ethos of its civil servants. Those civil servants saw Brussels as a promotional opportunity, permeated every crevice, nook and cranny of the EU system and, in two terms, brought home the bacon. We do not have people in Brussels working for us at that level.

1097. It behoves us to have people who are interested in going to Europe to benefit Northern Ireland. Our society needs that, because our economy, which is dysfunctional at the best of times, is looking into the abyss. We have the highest level of economic inactivity, which is wonderful phraseology for non-productive people. Some 500,000 people in Northern Ireland are deemed to be economically inactive and non-productive. Indeed, the labour market here can be distilled to 439,000 nine-to-fivers.

1098. That is not sustainable in any economy. We need to get to a situation where, whatever is going on, we have a hands-on approach to build and grow the economy.

1099. That is just the broad thrust of our views. I know that you are constrained by time, and I am constrained by time as well, because I thought that I was coming in here at 2.15pm. Sorry about that.

1100. The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation. A number of members have indicated that they would like to ask questions.

1101. Mr Shannon: Thank you for coming along today, Peter. You have mentioned the EU structural funds. One thing that has come out through the meetings that we have had all over the United Kingdom, and indeed with the Republic, has shown that maybe there is strength in having a stronger regional voice. There seems to be an indication from Westminster that they are prepared to give the regions a stronger voice. Do you think that if that were to be the case that you could influence things better in relation to Europe and what directions they take?

1102. Regarding the energy market, energy is clearly going to be a big issue for us because of where we are and the fact that we have to bring much of our energy in. I am keen to get your ideas on how we could influence the energy debate, and how we can help here.

1103. Mr Bunting: I do not have a monopoly on wisdom for what is best, and I cannot wave a magic wand, Jim, but regarding regionals, I think that it is a Europe of regions anyway. There is certainly a role for small regions, be they devolved administrations within the UK framework, or devolved regions — I think that the Committee is going to visit some of them in Spain or Germany or wherever.

1104. If Europe is to become meaningful to people, to break down some of that bureaucracy, it needs to concentrate on, and give something back to, the regions. That is crucial if Europe is to matter to all of us in the future, and certainly to the citizens who go out and vote. I would advocate a strong support of Europe. Europe, to many of us, modernised this island in many ways. It put a lot of emphasis on the social as opposed to the economic, and workers would not have half of the protections that they have in the workplace but for the social dimension of Europe. So, I think that there is a role for regions, and there is certainly a role for the Northern Ireland Assembly. After all, you are our democratically elected representatives, and it would be remiss of Europe, or of anyone else, to ignore your input into the drafting and formulation of European policy.

1105. On the issue of energy, I attended a meeting of the council of the isles of the trade union movement. I know that there are various councils of the isles, but this one is an annual meeting of the British Trades Union Congress (TUC), the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), the Welsh TUC and the Scottish TUC, which took place last November. I was amazed at how both the Welsh and the Scottish, in collaboration with their First Ministers, had taken deliberate policy moves on developing new green energies and their emphasis on that. We are five or six months behind them, so we are trying to capture a niche and get ahead of them, because in one sense, our regions are in competition.

1106. The discussion yesterday on a new deal was very informative, and through time, when we have got a consensus or a paper on how best to go ahead — which I assume would be circulated to all MLAs — we need to get into renewables. We cannot, as a society and as a region, keep going ahead with the carbon footprint that we have: we must reduce it. There is funding available that we can avail of.

1107. There are issues in relation to wind- and wave-power, and there are greater experts than me, but there are issues in Northern Ireland, such as the planning system, which would inhibit that. More importantly, if you look at the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), a lot of that is designed specifically toward green energy competitiveness and innovation. We need to be doing that in Northern Ireland. It is a given under the Programme for Government that we are going to do that. The longer that we wait, the more that it will cost us, and we will be playing catch-up.

1108. I keep coming back to this, but there needs to be someone — whether a he or a she — from the Northern Ireland Assembly sourcing those funds. I am more concerned about the manufacturing sector in Northern Ireland. We have good skills and a wealth of expertise in engineering in particular, which was the forte of Northern Ireland for many years. We still have that ability, but we are losing it. There is still innovation in Northern Ireland. Look at Wrightbus in Ballymena. It is one of the most innovative manufacturing plants on this island. If not one of the most innovative, it is one of the successful indigenous plants on the island. We need to build on that.

1109. We also need to use the crafts that were used in the shipyard, to build wind turbines. Such innovations should be put in place, and money to create the energy efficiencies must be utilised. As a spin-off, clusters of SMEs should share market intelligence and new technologies to create a manufacturing industry that will avail itself of the benefits of its position in Europe, and that will combat the rise of the carbon footprint.

1110. Ms Anderson: Much of what you said about tapping into or maximising our potential in Europe has been said already. One of the things that we picked up on in the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) was the progress programme, where there is £750 million. As far as we know, DEL has not made a bid for that programme. You mentioned another programme in relation to Seagate Technology and the opportunities there.

1111. We met Lord Trimble in Westminster. He said that the change to the structural fund will not have an adverse impact in the North. According to him, it will not have an adverse effect, because it is not additional money and it will not affect the Budget. However, you have a different slant on it.

1112. Mr Bunting: I will pass the name of the programme to the Chairperson and the Assembly Clerk. The UK Government have submitted their views on the EU structural funds to 2013 to the European Commission. The Government’s view is that beyond 2013, EU funds should be restricted to the poorest regions of the European Union, and the larger more prosperous member states — such as the United Kingdom — should be responsible for looking after their own poorer regions.

1113. That is what we have been told by our people who sit on the European Economic and Social Council, which is at the heart of Europe. ICTU has two representatives on that council, both of them from Northern Ireland.

1114. Ms Anderson: Lord Trimble told us that, but he said that it would not have an adverse impact, because it was not additional money and it was included in the block grant. He said that the North did not have to worry about that process.

1115. Mr Bunting: I trust the person who gave me my information. I would trust him more at this stage than I would trust anyone else, because this person is at the heart of Europe.

1116. The Chairperson: You need to be careful, because the Committee is being reported by the Hansard staff. [Laughter.]

1117. Mr Bunting: I accept that. In our dealings regarding workplace learning and training, I have had nothing but the highest respect for the Minister for Employment and Learning. We are close to DEL. The work that the Minister and his Department are doing on workplace learning, for instance, should be used as an example to a lot of other Ministers in Northern Ireland. I am not saying that because Mr Kennedy is the Chairperson of this Committee; I know it from our experience. I will be looking for money from the Minister him next week. [Laughter.]

1118. DEL is making an enormous contribution in such areas as reskilling, retraining and apprenticeships in these difficult times. I do not know whether anyone pursued the particular fund that I mentioned to you. It was featured in the media in relation to other closures, such as the Dell closure in Limerick. Nobody in the Republic of Ireland availed themselves of the fund either.

1119. The Chairperson: We will take the opportunity to investigate that for our own information. We thank you for providing that information, and we will reflect that back to you.

1120. Ms Anderson: Do you think that the changes to the 2013 structural funds will have an adverse effect later on?

1121. Mr Bunting: Our view is that it will impact a lot on the funds that are available for Northern Ireland.

1122. Mr Molloy: Thank you for your presentation. Will you elaborate on the question about Peace III and the evidence that trade unions have been cut out of that role? How do you get accountability with regard to community involvement in Peace III and all the different structures?

1123. Mr Bunting: Representatives from local council groups, employers, the community and voluntary sector, and trade unions were involved in discussions on Peace I and Peace II. However, when they amalgamated and formed into bundles of three, or whatever, those people were excluded, and elected members and officials more or less took over.

1124. The trade union movement never got any money out of it, by the way. Local volunteers played a huge role in mediating between the competing factions to avail of local funding under Peace I and Peace II. Therefore, it was to the detriment of the broad communities, including Derry City Council and Strabane District Council, and there was an attempt to move them out. There was an attempt to exclude the trade union movement and the Concordia — the social partners’ body — from it. That has now been rectified, but it was only rectified after this was written and after we made representation to the SEUPB, which is the guardian of the fund and the structures of how the fund should be administered.

1125. Mr Molloy: With regard to the linkages with people working for us in Europe, you are right in saying that, compared to the South, we do not have anything like the number of people who are working in other places. Evidence that we heard from Queen’s University and others was that they were reluctant to let people travel and to get involved completely to take up jobs in Brussels or elsewhere in Europe. Does the trade union movement have any linkages that would encourage people to make that jump across and that would be of benefit to people?

1126. Mr Bunting: We were actually assisting in people’s career prospects. However, to be honest, I know some people, including my good self at times, who think that some European tracts are like watching paint dry, and they are very turgid.

1127. The Chairperson: You have not been downstairs yet, have you?

1128. Mr Bunting: No, I have not. In that context, I am trying to get across the fact that it is a cultural thing. It is an ethos about how people can best help their locality. That is the primary aim. People who have gone to work in Europe are good at making friends, they have made good contacts right across Europe, and they are very well liked in the community. That is why I advocate that more of our civil servants should be located there, because they can identify the gaps in funding and identify where we are not applying for it. That is where their role is highly significant.

1129. Mr O’Farrell: I would like to make a brief comment. Perhaps we need to improve links between Northern Ireland and other regional assemblies in Europe. The task force report specifically compares Northern Ireland to six other regions in the European Union, which are of roughly the same population size.

1130. As you mentioned earlier, you are going to meet representatives from other regions in the European Union, as part of these evidence sessions. Perhaps one suggestion would be to beef up the idea of town twinning and have more of a direct linkage between other regions of the European Union, which have had other experiences. The task force report specifically mentions our experience in conflict resolution. However, there are other things that we have in common with other regions in Europe. For example, we are an area whose economy is dominated by a traditional manufacturing base. Other regions in Europe have similar problems trying to readjust their economy to avoid the pitfalls that we have had in our recent recovery. It could be argued that the recovery that our economy has had in the past few years has been dependent on short-term improvements, specifically in relation to the construction and retail sectors.

1131. If we are going to have a long-term economic future, we will have to find something concrete and long term that will act as a proper replacement for manufacturing, which is not going to come back.

1132. Perhaps those types of linkages can be used — not just between Northern Ireland and Brussels in respect of what we can get it out of it, but between other regions of Europe — to essentially bypass the national behemoths.

1133. Mr Elliott: Thank you for your presentation. You mooted some fairly serious accusations. Did you not slightly contradict each other in what you said, especially in respect of what John just said? On the one hand, Peter said that we had to get more structured funding from Europe — and I agree, if it is there, we should be getting it. Some serious accusations were levelled at some Departments and the Executive in general. There was almost an inference that we could have saved Seagate had some of that funding been realised.

1134. On the other hand, John said that we must look at the longer term and focus on businesses that are here for the long haul. I have always been supportive of indigenous businesses, because those are the businesses that will always be here, whether they employ only five people, 20 people or 100 people. They will be here and — I hope — stay here, unless they hit real economic difficulties.

1135. My question is two-fold. First, Peter, you made some serious accusations. I want to hear more about the funding streams that we have missed out on. If we have missed out on funding, has that information been relayed to the relevant Departments? I do not see any reference to that in the briefing paper; perhaps I missed it. Let us hear about that.

1136. Secondly, there seems to be a conflict between what the two of you said about getting funding on a short-term basis essentially. You cannot rely on European funding, although, to be fair, it has created a number of jobs in Northern Ireland; however, the long-term nature of those jobs is questionable, too.

1137. Mr Bunting: I am sorry if I misled you, I am not advocating that the funding would have saved Seagate. I said that the funding would have gone a long way towards retraining the 900 staff who were let go from Seagate and that European funding exists for that area. You can read in the briefing paper about why £500 million of European funding exists specifically for that purpose.

1138. If you listened carefully to what I said you would know that I said that we did not avail of that funding. I did not see anything mentioned in the media to the contrary; I might have missed it. My point is about training those 900 people from Seagate. You can be rest assured that if 900 or 500 jobs were lost in any other European country that is well clued in to Europe that it would be availing of that funding. We need to be as cute and as useful as them. After all, somewhere along the line we are paying for that money. We are not getting handouts; we are entitled to get that money.

1139. Mr O’Farrell: With respect, there was no contradiction at all. A press release on the Barroso Taskforce Report outlines, for example, that the regional competitiveness and employment programme has a budget of €640 million, with €307 million of investment from the EU. That programme includes the setting up 60 new centres in research and development and contributing to the starting up of 250 new businesses.

1140. Peter and I, and the trade union movement as a whole, have said that the Northern Ireland economy is drastically underdeveloped in certain areas, particularly in research and development. The hoped-for EU average for research and development as a proportion of GDP is 2·4%. The Lisbon protocol, which was designed a few years ago to boost the European-wide economy, aims for every member state and region to have an average of 3% of GDP devoted to research and development. Our average stands at 0·8%. That is one of the lowest averages in Europe and the second lowest of any region in the United Kingdom.

1141. The European Union is offering concrete money to develop clusters of small businesses — the very ones that Mr Elliott spoke about. Funding can help develop, grow and create not just more jobs but more jobs for the long term. It is about engaging with Europe to try to improve our situation here and to learn from best practice abroad. Perhaps then we can export our own best practice in fields that are a bit more hopeful than that of conflict resolution.

1142. The Chairperson: We have received your paper, which we are in the process of copying, circulating and investigating.

1143. There have been cases when possible solutions were offered; however, upon investigation, it was found that it was not possible to avail of or obtain European funding that was, apparently, available. From memory, there was a recent case that related to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

1144. Mr Spratt: It is a pretty serious allegation to suggest that Departments did not look into that. At the time, I was Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning. I must say that the Minister and DEL did a lot of work for the Seagate employees. The Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister at the time was also active in putting together training programmes, and so forth, to support people who had lost their jobs in that region. The area’s MLAs, from all parties, worked together to try to sort that out. Therefore, it is a bit unfair to set a document down in front of us that is dated February 2009.

1145. I wonder whether you can give me a direct answer. Was the trade-union movement heavily involved at Seagate? You mentioned that the Irish Government did not pick up on it with regard to the Dell situation in Limerick. Did the trade-union movement draw that to the Department’s attention at any point in time during its discussion about funding, or have you only picked up on the matter as well?

1146. Mr Bunting: To be quite open and honest, we picked up on it after the Dell situation emerged. We had no engagement in the Seagate situation. Seagate is a non-unionised factory. However, we offered to advise workers on their redundancies. They were not part of an organised trade-union movement.

1147. I am not making allegations. I am saying that I was unaware that that fund was utilised in training. I bring it to your attention because we should avail of that funding as a mechanism to tackle future job losses. The original threshold was a minimum of 1,000 people. That has since been reduced to 500, by the way. I stand to be corrected if that is erroneous, although that is my understanding.

1148. You are quite right; the Republic of Ireland did not avail of that funding either with regard to Dell. However, it has come to light as a result of the situation at the Dell factory in Limerick, which has, obviously, occurred in 2009, and, consequently, after what happened at Seagate. You are quite right that, clearly, the movement did not notice it either. Had we, we would have brought it to somebody’s attention.

1149. The Chairperson: I thought that there would be a demarcation dispute on that issue. However, there was not.

1150. Mr Bunting: I do not want mixed messages to come out of what I say in case somebody gets confused again.

1151. Ms Anderson: We have heard evidence from a number of people, Chairperson, which has shown us that the work that is being done in the North could be stepped up a gear. We could get access to funding of which we have not availed. That is not the case in any one Department, but across all Departments and the Executive. We have inherited that. That is the whole purpose of our inquiry.

1152. Therefore, I do not believe that we should be precious about it. If we have lost an opportunity — and we know that we may have lost other opportunities in the past — we must try to rectify that in the future. If we are in receipt of information that tells us that there are opportunities that we can maximise, we must try to share that knowledge, so that Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons of other Committees are aware of it, and to ensure that funding can be accessed and maximised.

1153. Mr Spratt: The point that I was making, Martina, was the fact that people who worked at Seagate were probably dealt with a lot better under devolution than they would have been under direct rule. A lot of work was done quickly — much of which was outside the box.

1154. Ms Anderson: That was acknowledged by some of the workers.

1155. Mr Bunting: I acknowledge the work of the Minister for Employment and Learning, for whom I have a lot of respect and time. He is doing that work in, probably, the worst possible circumstances.

1156. I suggest that that would have followed on and would not have hindered or inhibited the closure of the Dell factory. However, money would have been available to train people who have been made redundant and have lost their jobs. To put them into training programmes, and so on, would help them. If money is available, we must access it. That is the message.

1157. The Chairperson: We will, certainly, investigate the paper that you have produced. We will make you aware of the outcome of that. Thank you for making yourselves available and for your presentation.

25 March 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Councillor Tim Attwood
Councillor Jonathan Bell
Dr Ken Bishop

Northern Ireland Local Government Association

1158. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): I understand that Ken is presenting on behalf of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association.

1159. Dr Ken Bishop (Northern Ireland Local Government Association): Yes, Chairperson. I will introduce my colleagues to you. With me is Councillor Jonathan Bell, chairperson of the European working group, and Councillor Tim Attwood, the deputy chairperson of the same group. Perhaps I can start by handing over to Councillor Bell.

1160. The Chairperson: You are all very welcome indeed. By way of information, the evidence session is being recorded by Hansard, and we envisage that you will make a short presentation before making yourselves available for questions. We anticipate the session lasting approximately 20 to 25 minutes, although the timescale does not always apply.

1161. Councillor Jonathan Bell (Northern Ireland Local Government Association): Thank you, Chairman and members, for the opportunity to make a presentation on the consideration of European issues. The Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) has become a key delivery partner in many areas of European Union policy. In many ways, local government turns that policy into delivery. Most recently, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association was asked to give the reply speech at the first European Union summit of central Government and local government, at which I replied to Sir Kim Darroch, the UK’s permanent representative to the European Union. The key areas that that summit looked at were climate change, radicalisation and the economic recession. The main point to come out of that was the willingness of the European representatives to work with local government in Northern Ireland. That is something that we want to build upon in order to develop our success in that area.

1162. Currently, council capacity is limited by lack of opportunity in European affairs on how best to deliver fuller local-level benefits. NILGA believes that the delivery of European Union policy would be greatly enhanced if there was a closer working relationship between regional and local government that would be directed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. We want to work as effectively as we possibly can in order to ensure that the local level is fully understood and incorporated in the development of European Union policies at the earliest possible opportunity. Local government has had great support from the Commission’s office in Northern Ireland, the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels and the UK representation here.

1163. The importance of Northern Ireland’s local government having a stronger and more effective presence in Europe was, in many ways, echoed in the Commission’s Northern Ireland Taskforce Report of April 2008. We welcomed many aspects of the Barroso Report and the Commission’s continuing support for the region. However, as we are all aware, we are in a global economic slowdown, and the focus is now on regional recovery and competitiveness. In particular, we wish to focus on the Commission’s future plans for territorial cohesion and economic recovery. NILGA believes that the concept of territorial cohesion has an important role to play in shaping future European Union priorities and associated funding.

1164. I will hand over to Councillor Tim Attwood, who will put some more meat on that skeleton.

1165. Councillor Tim Attwood (Northern Ireland Local Government Association): It is important to emphasise that over 50% of regulation implemented at local level has its origins in EU policy. NILGA welcomes the opportunity to work with the Assembly, the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), the Department of the Environment (DOE) and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) on the EU credit crunch alleviation packages — measures to address the wider financial crisis, such as the European regional development fund (ERDF); new opportunities in social housing to promote energy efficiency and the use of renewable energies; broadband funds for rural areas; and additional funds for strategic energy-related projects.

1166. We welcome the opportunity to support the Executive in the delivery of a local government EU-level strategy on the economic slowdown and internal market rules, including lowering VAT on council services. As Jonathan said, it is immensely important that local government has an enhanced role through the Executive in Brussels. We must network and lobby more widely in the EU because there are so many policies and laws that affect everyone on a day-to-day basis in the North, especially in local authorities. We wish to see a better and stronger partnership between NILGA, the Executive, Departments and this Committee, so that we can discuss the best way forward locally and regionally in tackling issues on behalf of citizens.

1167. We feel that the failure to address the current level of under-representation in European and international affairs significantly disadvantages Northern Ireland local authorities. NILGA representatives visited Brussels in December and heard a useful presentation from the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive. Again, its role could be enhanced; it is represented in the Executive’s ministerial team in Brussels. During that visit, NILGA representatives also met representatives of the Welsh Local Government Association. It only has three staff, but its impact, through networking, contacts and lobbying, has been huge. It has been able to work with other EU regions that are similar to Wales in order to minimise the loss of Objective 1 status.

1168. There is a need to examine policy, lobbying and networking so that the role of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive can be enhanced, or the role of NILGA could be enhanced, working with the Executive office, to ensure that we are at that table. As EU funds are exhausted, we will have to work much harder to create better relationships across the regions so that Northern Ireland gets the maximum benefit of the EU.

1169. Councillor Bell: In conclusion, there are three key areas that we wish to develop. First; the policy role, and the concept of working together; secondly, to get the best deal out of the money that is available and have an input into the higher policy level on how the money is used. Finally, we want to build relationships with the European Union accession states, particularly in areas where we have considerable expertise, such as in structural funds. We see a role in being able to share that good practice.

1170. The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation. You told us that you want to be involved and feel that you should be involved directly with the European office of the Northern Ireland operation centre. Clearly there is history there, which goes back to the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe. It was created by local government, and others had not thought of it. Therefore, there is a precedent for it. Would NILGA be prepared to pay its way and to contribute to the service to its members? Benefits could be accrued by Northern Ireland, not only for local government, but for the Assembly. Is that a fair assumption?

1171. Councillor Bell: Dr Bishop will discuss the exact financial detail, but the Northern Ireland Local Government Association is already paying quite heavily into services that it is not receiving with regard to representation on the Committee of the Regions.

1172. Dr Bishop: It is important to ensure that we get value for money from the services that we receive from Europe. One of the areas that we have been highlighting is the need to ensure that we have every opportunity available to us to represent the region and the sector in Europe, and the most direct way that we are involved in that is through the Committee of the Regions.

1173. As the Committee may be aware, we have four representatives from the region on the Committee of the Regions. As they are part of the UK delegation, NILGA puts a set amount of money into the financial support of our representatives to enable them to go to Europe to represent us. However, there is concern around the feedback mechanisms from responses to that Committee attendance and around levels of attendance at those meetings. We want to encourage the representatives on those seats to look again at how they can report back to the local government sector on what they are doing to support the region.

1174. It is important to note that we are involved in supporting members who sit on structural funds monitoring committees. My primary role is to support members by providing information, assistance and research, and we have provided those services to members who sit on structural funds monitoring groups. If we were given enhanced capability, we would like to develop more policy engagement. Therefore, we feel that we do not really have enough clout in that area, but it is an area in which we need to get more involved, hopefully with the assistance of the Executive.

1175. Members feel that there is no use complaining about EU policies and directives when we see the train coming along the track. We need to have some kind of early warning system in place where we can pick up those policies at an early stage, work in co-operation with the regional level and prepare a regional response, because those policies have an impact on people’s lives, and people tend to forget that.

1176. Councillor Bell: We pay the Local Government Association (LGA) for it to provide briefing papers for the Committee of the Regions and other bodies. It is a fair question. We are paying significantly into it at the moment, and it is top-sliced, as it goes along from Northern Ireland local government.

1177. Mr Moutray: I, too, extend a warm welcome to you. How can the Northern Ireland Executive best consult with local government on European issues, and I am thinking specifically post-RPA?

1178. Dr Bishop: I think that the best, most constructive way that the Executive can consult on European issues is to have a clear forum, and look again at the methods of communication. Currently, I feel that the European schemes and initiatives are being conferred on Departments as they happen, but that is not filtering down to local government.

1179. We also need to have the ability to sit down with the regional decision-makers from the Departments and talk about what is coming up on the agenda; how we can input into the process of responses through consultations; and how we can best benefit from the feeding up of the information from the ground.

1180. We are very conscious that a lot of EU policies have direct input on the ground and are delivered by local government, so it makes sense that local government should be involved in that discussion and inclusion process, and consultations coming from the region.

1181. Councillor Bell: Earlier, NILGA was involved in a central local partnership with the central Government in Westminster. The LGA and the Westminster parliamentarians had an agreement that all services and policies that were going to be delivered at a local level would first be delegated to that local level.

1182. The central local partnership took that forward: there were representations of both bodies, both on the Executive and post-RPA. There will be significantly enhanced powers from councillors. One suggestion is that we have some form of central local partnership, that that which is going to be delivered by the Executive is delivered by the Executive, and that which is to be delivered locally, but comes through the Executive, will filter through a channel there to agree how we can take things forward together more productively.

1183. The LGA has a checklist, which states that policies that are to be delivered at local government level will automatically be put down to local government level, as that is the area in which they will be taken forward.

1184. There may be an area where there could be a combined working partnership. I do not think that there is any advantage in local government going outside the Executive; they have to work together. Europe, when it delegates policies down, expects the two to be worked out together.

1185. Councillor T Attwood: It would probably be worthwhile having a meeting between NILGA executives and others to see how that relationship could be worked out, because as RPA takes place, there will be a more strategic view from local government into Europe and into the Executive. An early meeting of all the key players on how we roll that out in a few years would be helpful.

1186. The Chairperson: Thank you. Something has struck me in that quite a proportion of members of this Committee are probably members of NILGA, wearing their hats as local district councillors. It might be important to register that fact and have it recorded. I sit on Newry and Mourne District Council, Jim Shannon on Ards —

1187. Mr Shannon: I was going to say that, but you have said it for me.

1188. Mr Moutray: Alderman Stephen Moutray, Craigavon Borough Council.

1189. Mr I McCrea: I was a member of NILGA, but I no longer am.

1190. The Chairperson: If the council that you are attached to is affiliated to NILGA, we will record it as a precaution.

1191. Mr I McCrea: I am a Councillor in Cookstown District Council.

1192. Mr Spratt: I am a Councillor on Castlereagh Borough Council.

1193. Ms Anderson: I am the only member who does not sit on a local council.

1194. Mr McElduff: I am a Councillor on Omagh District Council.

1195. Mr Molloy: I am a Torrent Councillor on Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council.

1196. Mr Shannon: Chairman, as you have declared my interest, I was going to ask you to ask my questions for me. Can you ask number one?

1197. The Chairperson: I would not have time to ask all your questions.

1198. Mr Shannon: It is nice to have you here, gentlemen, and to make contact with you again. Location-wise, Northern Ireland, as we know, sits on the periphery of Europe. How best, in your opinion, should we place our efforts to ensure that our voice is heard? What contacts should we make?

1199. Secondly, we have had evidence sessions with officials from the Republic of Ireland and Wales. Those sessions, and sessions with our Scottish counterparts, have shown that they have been able to gain a fairly large amount of financial help. Maybe their status is slightly different, and I accept that: it is in relation to Wales and the Republic of Ireland, and that is probably changing.

1200. What advice can you give the Committee to ensure that the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the people of the Province, can take advantage of the financial incentives and help that comes through Europe?

1201. Councillor T Attwood: One thing, Jim, I think, is that you need to create goodwill. Jonathan already mentioned sharing experience, and that is one way in which to do that. There are succession states, which now have access to structural funds, and so on. Obviously, we have a huge amount of experience in managing, delivering and monitoring structural funds. Through the workings of the Assembly, we have a huge amount of experience, for example, in partnership government and positive changes in policing. A variety of those succession states are coming out of conflict zones or divided societies. Northern Ireland can create a body of goodwill by sharing its expertise and experience, and that will stand us in good stead in future years. If we show goodwill to those new states, which, in some respects, we are now competing with for funds, we can all help each other.

1202. In Brussels, we met the Welsh Local Government Association, which gave us some examples of how it is working with similar regions to find common ground and to lobby the EU, even though the national Governments are lobbying on their behalf. One example is that through the Committee of the Regions, the Welsh Local Government Association put in a £1 billion bid for regional broadband. That came through the Welsh Local Government Association, so you can see the value of building networks and relationships.

1203. It is not a question of the Northern Ireland Office doing that; it has its own role, one which it does well. However, you have to be ahead of the game when it comes to networking and lobbying. Coming back to the Chairman’s point, if you compare the former Northern Ireland organisation in Europe — the Northern Ireland Centre for Europe — with what the Northern Ireland Office is doing now, there may be lessons to be learned. We may need to go back to some of the things that were done well when the Centre for Europe was in place.

1204. Dr Bishop: There are a couple of issues around what we can do in the area of funding. At the moment, the number one issue on everyone’s lips is the economic recovery plan, and what the place of local government, and us as a region, will be within Europe’s recovery initiatives. We would welcome the opportunity to work with the Assembly — with DFP, DOE, and DETI — on the credit crunch alleviation packages. Currently, the main thing is the discussion in Europe regarding the European regional development fund and the changes to its policy around match-funding commitments, opportunities in social housing, broadband, and additional funds for energy-related projects. That is one area in which it would be practical to start.

1205. I think that it would benefit the region to look at how Europe delivers EU structural funds to the region. There are a number of issues around that. We need to lobby the Commission to simplify the programme measures, to focus on structural funds that meet our needs, to speed up regional payments and to review the EU’s financial engineering schemes that could support our region’s recovery.

1206. In particular, if you will indulge me, there are areas in which we can look at removing obstacles, such as excess bureaucracy; there are too many regulations coming from the Commission, which are not understood. Lack of transparency on co-financing schemes is another area; there are few opportunities for exchange of experience between project promoters. Finally, there is an issue around inadequate arrangements for interregional co-operation. We are saying that there are opportunities for us to work in partnership and there are proper steps that we can take. However, we need to sit down and talk. That is one of the main themes coming through at the moment.

1207. We have highlighted some of the issues, which, as a region, it would be of benefit to look at. For example, the current EU budget review and its measures to address the impact of the economic crisis; the adaptation of energy and climate change policy and the agreement for new targets on the use of renewable energy; regional policy, including our region’s response to the Green Paper on territorial cohesion and the emerging transnational region status; proposals on the revision of the Lisbon strategy on growth and jobs; the implementation of the common agricultural policy (CAP) heath check.

1208. It might also want to look at the need for simplification of state aid rules; the sustainable transport policy and the Green Paper on the review of the TEN-T project; and, to finish off — particularly for local government — there is the issue of recycling and waste, including revision of the WEEE directive and proposals on biodegradable waste.

1209. Those are some examples of the areas that we have identified, and we are keen to work with the Executive to find solutions for them.

1210. Councillor Bell: Alderman Shannon made the point that we are a peripheral region. Northern Ireland will have to work smarter because we live outside the good days when we had objective 1 funding. We do not have that now: we are living in a different world. However, we must work smarter. To draw on Alderman Shannon’s point, there are opportunities to go into peripheral regional funding. There is specific funding for regions that are on the periphery of Europe, and it is a matter of getting involved with that. We must also use the bodies that already exist.

1211. I also know Alderman Moutray. The council areas are all involved in the east border region. We have seen a traction down of around €15,000 into the Greyabbey equestrian project, which delivered a real benefit similar to the west. It is a matter of using those partnerships to draw down the inter-regional funding and a matter of working smarter. We have lost objective 1 funding, but there are opportunities on the peripheral regions, particularly working alongside Scotland.

1212. Mr Molloy: Thank you for coming along, and thank you for your presentation. It is good to see colleagues from NILGA.

1213. You said that the European office could be enhanced. Do you see a situation where the Assembly and local government could have combined office facilities — or at least a portion could be developed? At the moment, the Northern Ireland Office is in the European office.

1214. Within the Barroso report, was NILGA able to identify other strategies that could benefit local government with funding that has not been drawn down? We have always been able to look towards the Peace programme and the rural programme. However, the Barroso report points out that there are a number of other channels of funding that have not been tapped into. Have any of those channels been identified?

1215. Councillor T Attwood: With respect to the first issue, you are talking about a partnership approach with the Northern Ireland Office; I do not think that you are talking about a separate initiative. The NIO would be very open, and there could be a desk there already if the resources were available. Other countries house not only their own executive in one building, but business organisations and local government associations, to maximise the impact for that region of their country. We want to work in partnership with the Northern Ireland Office and enhance that role — especially in lobbying and networking.

1216. Councillor Bell: European matters differ across councils. Only Belfast City Council and Derry City Council have European officers employed full-time to deal solely with European matters. The rest of the councils rely on the European service provided by NILGA. It is one way of getting past the current situation where, yes, we can use an office when we go over to Brussels, and it will provide us with a desk and access to email, and everything else: it would allow us to have some form of presence whereby we could lead and direct the agenda.

1217. I have one key point — if it is not too cheeky. The Assembly makes the first, and substitute, appointments to the Committee of the Regions. Does NILGA have a role in the substitute appointments — given that the substitutes are there not just to fill in when the main member cannot attend, but that they have a specific role? By all means, the Executive or the political parties can appoint their members via the Assembly to the full place, but would it be an idea for NILGA to have a role in making appointments to the substitute place and to have a local government dedicated person in Europe, serving on the Committee of the Regions?

1218. The Chairperson: One of the benefits of having the meeting recorded by Hansard is that that point can be considered.

1219. Mr Molloy: To follow on from that, I want to make an important point about the Committee of the Regions. Do you know whether there have been any combined meetings of the representatives of the Committee of the Regions, the Conference of European Regional Legislative Assemblies (CALRE) and other structures? Would there be any benefit in MEPs, local government representatives and the Assembly coming together to see how best to get the benefits of European funding? The British Government at Westminster told us that they consulted directly with the Northern Ireland Office on European affairs. Do the British Government consult with NILGA on European affairs?

1220. Dr Bishop: Through existing structures, NILGA can establish links to various networking groups and workshops across Europe. As far as I am aware, Whitehall does not keep NILGA directly informed about any decisions or regional issues that affect local government. There would be value in working more closely with our MEPs and MLAs. When I am in Brussels to meet the MEPs, I make a point of discussing local government issues with them and briefing them. There is also value in examining some form of informal relationship with Assembly Members, perhaps on a quarterly or bi-quarterly basis, so that Members can meet local government representatives to discuss European strategies, plans and priorities that affect them.

1221. Councillor Bell: You have highlighted a critical area, but it is an evolving area. When Northern Ireland local government first came together in 2001, I was appointed to the European working group via NILGA. Within 10 days, I was sent over to Elland Road to the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. Peter Hain, the then Minister for Europe, was there, and asked whether I could give him the views of Northern Ireland on the European constitution — before it was amended and became a treaty. There was an expectation at that level —

1222. The Chairperson: It is all your fault. [Laughter.]

1223. Councillor Bell: I would love to claim credit for that. We can see that the relationship is changing at the moment. The UK permanent representation is very clear in welcoming our involvement. Recently, we had a European seminar in Belfast that was attended by a key representative of the Commission and Members of Parliament. There has to be some form of integration between the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, which is, effectively, the European LGA, and in which we have a role; the Committee of the Regions; and the Local Government International Bureau and its European affairs group, on which we sit on a quarterly basis alongside representatives of the LGA in England and Wales and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA). However, there is no key body that brings together the Members of the European Parliament and the bodies that I mentioned. That is an area for future development.

1224. Mr Spratt: You are very welcome, gentlemen; it is good to see you here. I will make a comment rather than ask a question. John Adams and I attend the executive meetings of the Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP UK) from time to time. NILGA is associated with that organisation through the National Association of Regional Employers. There is no doubt that those bodies are doing great deal of work on various pieces of legislation, particularly those that affect local government. Perhaps that needs to be built on.

1225. I am not sure whether Dr Bishop has taken that mantle and is dealing with European matters through CEEP UK. CEEP UK is about to change its name, or has already done so. I cannot remember what the new name is, but it might be worthwhile looking at that issue, because there are good opportunities there to do some work on European matters; perhaps you should mention that to John.

1226. If the Lisbon treaty were ratified, what would the implications be for Northern Ireland?

1227. Councillor Bell: That is one for you, Ken.

1228. Dr Bishop: To be honest, there is not a lot of discussion about the ratification of the Lisbon treaty and how it would link into our competitiveness and employment trends in the future.

1229. From talking to other LGAs in Brussels and across the UK, I know that there is a certain level of activity around making sure that the best deal is brokered regarding the Lisbon Treaty. I think that it is up to us to feed into the Lisbon Treaty process. I know that it is part of the economic recovery plan from the commission, and that UKREP has been looking for advice from the regions, and from sectors within the regions, around what measures can be looked at and what policies can be reviewed in order to make us more competitive. We need to engage more with the decision-makers on the Commission in order to lobby whatever our decision on that may be.

1230. Ms Anderson: I apologise for being late; my previous meeting ran longer than was expected. I read your submission, and I see that it shares a lot of common ground with some of the evidence that we have heard from other groups and organisations. Namely, that there needs to be greater co-operation between ourselves and NILGA.

1231. You said that the Executive need to support the development and delivery of an EU-level local government strategy. In the context of what you said about the European LGAs, have European strategies already been developed for other local governments that could assist in the development of the strategy that you are talking about, particularly around the economic slowdown and the internal market rules? In answering Jim’s question, you mentioned an economic recovery plan, and that is an issue that some MEPs have brought up with us. Given that you have asked for a review of the mechanism of the rules on public procurement, are you having difficulty accessing procurement contracts and the social requirements built into those? Is that the reason why you are experiencing difficulties?

1232. Councillor Bell: I will answer the first question on the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), and I will ask Ken to talk about the economic and public procurement issues. The European local government associations do work together. They tend to meet every six months and, therefore, that is the only opportunity that they have to influence key policy areas. They will take a key strategic area, such as climate change, and look at what local government can do and at what the co-ordination would be across that specific area. They will not get into the specifics of how member states and their local government associations interact. What a member state can do, through the CEMR, is bring up an issue that is affecting local government and that can be dealt with. However, that issue has to be in a key area that cross-references all the other European issues.

1233. Dr Bishop: NILGA has been very active in the matter of the economic slowdown. One of the main drives of our current president, Councillor Helen Quigley, is that we address that issue. At a European level, we have been working with LGAs in the UK to try to feed some information on local issues through UKREP and on to a Commission level. We need to develop a greater understanding on the ground of the importance of European issues. I think that sometimes, in councils, Europe is not seen as a priority. Its importance is not at the forefront. However, we have seen that it is important for councils, and for the region, to realise how important European legislation and directives are for local government, and how we then implement those.

1234. That leads me on to your procurement question. Again, there is some anecdotal evidence coming through to suggest that some of the planned changes to procurement practices and requirements may slow down the process. That may affect the awarding of local contracts and so on. Those are issues that we should be involved in and that we need to be involved in. I cannot overestimate the importance of getting in quickly and having our voice heard as soon as possible on those important issues.

1235. Ms Anderson: Are you saying that what is coming through will slow down the procurement process, as opposed to assisting it?

1236. Dr Bishop: Well, that is anecdotal. People are saying that the legislation can be cumbersome and slow, and that there can be some confusion as to what it means and what it does not mean.

1237. As Jonathan said, we are just coming up to speed with what is going on. However, the message coming through is that we need to engage more quickly.

1238. The Chairperson: That completes the question and answer session. Thank you very much indeed for your presentation and for the answers that you provided. It may well be that the Committee will ask you to submit some additional information, and if there is anything else that you wish to submit, we are very happy to receive it.

25 March 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Seamus Gallagher
Mr Sean Kelly

Northern Ireland Environment Link

1239. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): You are very welcome. The format is that you make an opening statement and then make yourselves available for questions. We have tried to stick to a timetable but, unfortunately, time has crept up on us. However, we want to give consideration to this important session and we look forward to what you have to say.

1240. Mr Seamus Gallagher (Northern Ireland Environment Link): I begin by thanking the Chairman and the Committee for inviting us, and for giving us the opportunity to address the Committee on its consideration of European issues. I am Seamus Gallagher, and with me is Sean Kelly. We are policy officers with Northern Ireland Environment Link (NIEL). Unfortunately, our director, Sue Christie, was not able to be here today and she sends her apologies. With your permission, I will begin by briefly introducing Northern Ireland Environment Link and going through some of the main points from our consultation response. We will then, as you said, take questions.

1241. The Northern Ireland Environment Link is the networking and forum body for non-statutory organisations concerned with the environment of Northern Ireland. It has 55 full members that represent over 90,000 individuals, and has an annual turnover of £70 million. Members are involved in environmental issues of all types and at all levels, from the local community through to the global environment.

1242. In the consultation we were asked to comment on the Assembly’s role in relation to European matters, and to make recommendations on how to improve its scrutiny of European policy and engagement with EU issues. Our comments are based on an analysis of the recommendations made in the 2002 inquiry into the approach of the Northern Ireland Assembly and devolved Government on European Union issues, which was conducted by the then Committee of the Centre. The report called for greater openness and transparency on EU matters. We believe that much remains to be done on that, as getting clear information and advice on the procedures and mechanisms for local transposition of EU legislation remains difficult. That is particularly the case for those operating outside Government.

1243. The 2002 report recommended that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister keep its database and current EU directives up to date, and that that database be shared with the relevant Assembly Committees. Although NIEL is unsure of the degree to which that recommendation has been fulfilled, that information is not readily available to the non-governmental organisation sector. In the spirit of openness and transparency, we believe that it should be.

1244. The need for a greater engagement beyond Government circles is supported by recommendation 9 of that 2002 report, which suggests that:

“structures should be put into place to make use of all available expertise and networks including those outside the Departments."

1245. Given that the success of any policy will ultimately be determined by the level of support that it receives, NIEL believes that a cross-sectoral partnership approach to policy design and implementation is essential.

1246. We suggest that recommendation 13 of the 2002 report be enacted immediately. That recommendation said that:

“OFMDFM establishes a central resource which not only collates all the available EU affairs information but helps explain the context, the implications and the opportunities or threats. The establishment of a web based portal should be investigated as a method of sharing this information with non government organisations and local government."

1247. It is NIEL’s belief that in the absence of that information and the appropriate structures, the NGO sector will find it difficult to effectively engage on EU issues.

1248. The consultation asked us to consider the Executive’s response to the Barroso task force. NIEL feels that the task force report fails to grasp the truly mutual relationship between sustainability and economic growth. The Executive must ensure that environmental sustainability and enhancement is addressed and that the development of a green, low-carbon economy is made a priority. As was mentioned in the last evidence session, that is one of the areas that could provide great opportunities and economic growth for Northern Ireland.

1249. The task force report refers to the Northern Ireland sustainable development strategy, which was adopted in 2006. However, since the task fore report was issued, the Executive have decided to replace the sustainable development strategy.

1250. NIEL believes that the new strategy should be published and implemented as a matter of urgency, and that it should provide the template against which all actions suggested in the taskforce report are implemented. A reinvigorated Sustainable Sevelopment Stakeholder Forum and the Sustainable Development Commission should be involved in developing the action plan.

1251. You asked us to consider the European policy issues that fall within the Committee’s remit. During the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and following widespread consultation, OFMDFM published ‘Taking our place in Europe - Northern Ireland’s European Strategy 2006-2010.’ That document mapped out a framework for Northern Ireland’s engagement with Europe. The strategy was also designed to guide the work of regional and local government, and set out what needed to be done in partnership with civil society, including the NGO sector.

1252. The strategy recognised the environment as an EU policy priority area for Northern Ireland and stated the need to protect and sustain Northern Ireland’s environment. The EU’s current environmental action programme prioritises climate change, nature and biodiversity, health and quality of life and natural resources and waste. NIEL recommends that the Committee update and implement the strategy and has those priorities in its action areas.

1253. To conclude, NIEL believes that the Assembly must take a dual approach on European issues. First, it should ensure that Northern Ireland works proactively to influence future EU policies and legislation that will have a local impact. Secondly, the Assembly should encourage all relevant Departments to develop a partnership approach with local NGOs to ensure the successful design and implementation of European policy at a local level. NIEL is keen to play its part in a cross-sectoral partnership approach to European policy design and implementation in Northern Ireland. However, we believe that OFMDFM and this Committee should lead that process.

1254. The Chairperson: Thank you very much for your presentation, Seamus. Does NIEL have any sister organisations that network on European issues and can identify issues that are coming down the European track? How can that be exploited or built on to enhance Northern Ireland’s input into Europe?

1255. Mr S Gallagher: Northern Ireland Environment Link has sister organisations in England, Scotland and Wales, and is part of a linked group that we call Joint Links. However, Joint Links does not have a presence in Europe, but several of NIEL’s members do. Some of the bigger organisations that are members of the link movement, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Wildlife Trust, are part of a movement in Europe and they are part of the green organisations in Brussels.

1256. NIEL’s due process involves improving our connections with those organisations so that we can front load information that is coming to us on European issues. It is a two-pronged exercise; we must get Government to increase their role, but the NGO sector in Northern Ireland must reach out further to establish links. That is what we are doing.

1257. Ms Anderson: In your written submission, you outline the need for a clear information flow to NIEL on procedures and mechanisms so that you can make early interventions. Are you saying that the way to address the situation is to locate centrally the resources that you have asked for in OFMDFM? Is that your way of improving the current difficulties that you are having? You have said that there must be a dual approach; that although OFMDFM and the other Department have to be proactive, there must be a partnership approach. Will the recommendations that you have made improve the situation?

1258. Mr Sean Kelly (Northern Ireland Environment Link): One of the issues is that we are trying to find out what is happening in relation to European legislation. The previous report recommended the establishment of a web-based portal, and I presume that it was intended that such a portal would be based in the European policy co-ordination unit of OFMDFM. That portal would help us to determine what was coming down the line and would allow NGOs and other sectors to feed into consultations on how European legislation is created and implemented in Northern Ireland.

1259. Ms Anderson: Was that recommendation ever implemented?

1260. Mr S Kelly: Not as far as I am aware. We could not find any relevant information on the OFMDFM website.

1261. Mr S Gallagher: Some of those issues may have been addressed inside Government. We are aware of one or two papers that have been circulated that highlighted the stage that Departments are at with aspects of European legislation for which they have been given responsibility. However, it is difficult for someone on the outside. We organised a conference on European matters in early December 2008, and it was difficult to find out what stage the Department was at with upcoming legislation in Northern Ireland. It was very difficult for us to find out what infraction procedures had been initiated against the Department. That should not be that difficult. It is a matter of concern to a large number of organisations, and they should have access to that information.

1262. Mr S Kelly: At that event in December 2008, we wanted to help the sector and anyone who was interested to understand how policy making works in Europe, how that can be influenced in Brussels and how it is implemented and influenced here. As Seamus said, it was difficult to find people who were prepared to talk to us on that issue. We want that to be addressed.

1263. Ms Anderson: When the MEPs were at the Committee, did they refer to a programme of action and did they have a schedule of what was coming down the track, including time frames? It would be useful to share that kind of information so that MLAs know where that was located and that we could access it.

1264. Mr S Gallagher: It is possible to find out what is coming out of Europe. However, it is difficult to find out what role Northern Ireland is playing in that, whether that is to deal directly with Whitehall or to have a regional-specific response to it, and to find out what Europe is doing and what negotiating stance it is taking. All of that is useful, and all of that would benefit from involving NGOs in the wider sector.

1265. Mr S Kelly: We also understand that there is not always a simple, straight line. A directive may cut across a number of Departments, and, therefore, it can be difficult to find out who is involved, what stage someone is at and whether we can feed into it. If we could have access to a co-ordination of that, it would be very useful.

1266. The Chairperson: I smell something burning. Does anyone else? [Laughter.]

1267. Mr Elliott: Chair, you have shocked me. I wonder whether our two guests have brought something special from the environment. [Laughter.]

1268. Mr S Gallagher: We want to encourage anaerobic digestion, but we are not going that far. [Laughter.]

1269. Mr Elliott: Thank you for your presentation, gentlemen.

1270. The Chairperson: The smell may be coming from the dust on the uplighters.

1271. Mr Elliott: OK, I will believe that.

1272. I believe that too much regulation and bureaucracy comes out of Europe. What is your opinion on that? Do you accept that the bureaucracy is over-burdensome to the wider public in Northern Ireland, particularly in business and, more predictably, in agriculture? We seem to be creating institutions from EU regulations and directives. Do you share my concerns on that?

1273. Mr S Gallagher: It would be remiss of us not to point out the great benefits that being in Europe has brought to Northern Ireland’s environment. Much of the legislation that comes our way —

1274. Mr Elliott: We will disagree on that.

1275. Mr S Gallagher: Much of the legislation — for example, the great improvements in recycling rates and in local air quality — has come from European directives. That is a great advantage. In the previous evidence session, the funds and the expertise that can be made available from Europe were mentioned. We agree with that, and we think that that is one of the great opportunities.

1276. If we get involved early in legislative programmes and in the funding packages, we can tailor those pieces of legislation to the requirements of Northern Ireland. We do not want to see overregulation any more than anyone else does, and we do not want farmers or other businesses burdened with more than they have to be, but we want to see good environmental outcomes. We believe that by accessing the information early and letting people know about what is coming up at an early stage, that burden can be minimised.

1277. Mr Elliott: Do you believe that some of those regulations and directives are gold-plated when they progress from the European Union to the United Kingdom, and on to the regional Northern Ireland Assembly?

1278. Mr S Kelly: I am not sure whether they are gold-plated, but there is no doubt that Northern Ireland is a small part of the European Union, and that it is on the periphery of much of the major decision-making. The best that we can do is to utilise what resources we have there — whether that be civil servants or elected representatives in Brussels — and attempt to form whatever partnerships we can with other like-minded organisations in an attempt to punch above our weight. Otherwise what happens is that we just have to receive what gets handed down; and often when it gets handed down here in Northern Ireland, it can be too late in the day to —

1279. Mr Elliott: I will put the question slightly differently. If you do not know whether they are gold-plated, do you believe that they are implemented differently in Northern Ireland than they are in other parts of Europe — and by our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland?

1280. Mr S Gallagher: You will find that there is a degree of interpretation in most European policy; even more so now because of the way that they are designing policy in Europe. One could probably bring forward examples where you thought there would be a degree of gold-plating, and I am not saying that I would necessarily agree with that opinion. However, there have also been other examples where Northern Ireland has been called into question in the level of implementation that it has enacted, and whether it has been enough. There are examples of both.

1281. The Chairperson: Thank you. It is a worrying sign that more water is being passed out. Presumably that is to put out the fire. [Laughter.]

1282. Mr Molloy: I thank the witnesses for their presentation. Unfortunately, Mr Elliott has already asked some of my questions.

1283. Some of us would place question marks over the strategies employed by your sister organisations, and how effective those strategies are in getting us out of the credit crunch. Indeed, those strategies could be more restrictive in how they pursue cases. In what ways do you see your organisation as being reflective of public opinion in the North, and how does that reflect us in Europe?

1284. Mr S Gallagher: As I have said, Northern Ireland Environment Link is made up of 55 full member organisations, with their own constituencies and membership. We also have associate members from the business community and other sectors.

1285. Within the 55 full member organisations, there are approximately 90,000 members. Those individual members do not necessarily subscribe to everything that we say, but they do share our concerns over environmental issues in Northern Ireland. Therefore, we do believe that we do have a legitimacy to speak on those issues. We cannot delineate how everybody feels on everything we say apart from those members who have signed up to what we say on an individual basis.

1286. Mr S Kelly: In relation to the response to this particular consultation, we have obtained the views of our members and we must reflect what the consensus is within our 55 members. That consensus is what we are representing here today.

1287. Mr Molloy: Does your organisation deal with any other issues apart from the environment? Does it consider some of the gold-plated legislation that comes from Europe in areas such as business, the community and planning? I have heard some of your views on planning, and those views would not reflect the views of this Assembly.

1288. The Chairperson: To be fair, we are not here to cross-examine the Northern Ireland Environment Link —

1289. Mr Shannon: Why not, just while they are here? [Laughter.]

1290. Mr Molloy: I believe it is perfectly correct to do so. If witnesses appear before this Committee and make representations of their views on European legislation, it is quite in order to put those views on record and ascertain how reflective those views are in the North.

1291. Mr S Gallagher: I am happy to try to answer the question at least. The Committee may be interested in inviting us back at some time in the future to discuss wider issues. We are about to publish a document that outlines our priorities, and what we think the Assembly should be working on in relation to environmental issues this year. We would gratefully accept an invitation to revisit the Committee to discuss those views.

1292. The Chairperson: That may be a role for the Environment Committee —

1293. Mr S Gallagher: We see it as a role for everyone. [Laughter.]

1294. I think that your question is whether we think about wider issues than solely environmental ones. We do. We see a great correlation between environmental issues, economic issues and social issues, and we try to place what we say in a framework of sustainable development. Some people may disagree with some of the conclusions that we come to, but we always try to work according to those principles.

1295. Mr Shannon: I am sorry, gentlemen, that I was not present for your presentation, but I read the background information. There was a lunch organised by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure that we had to attend.

1296. The Chairperson: That is too much information.

1297. Mr Shannon: I am conscious of the fact that, sometimes, environmental issues are taken forward that may not have the backing of everyone. I think that your reply to another question, Sean, was that you are always keen to take everyone’s view on board; that is good news. If that is true, hopefully, the answer to my question will be positive.

1298. Do you have any detailed contact with the Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation, the Anglo North Fish Producers’ Organisation, or the Northern Ireland Trawlermen’s Trading Company? Those are the three organisations that represent the fishing industry. There is clearly a difference of opinion in relation to how things are taken forward. When there is an issue regarding cutbacks on fishing quotas or on days-at-sea allowances, and so on, we find that the scientists line up on one side, and the fishing industry on the other side, and never the twain shall meet. There is no meeting of minds.

1299. I am keen to get your opinion on contact with those organisations; does your organisation have contact with them? If so, what has been the outcome of that contact? Although I respect the views and opinions of scientists, sometimes they need to be made aware of the realities and the practical issues facing fishing organisations on the ground — or, in this case, on the sea.

1300. Mr S Gallagher: I will not speak specifically about fishing quotas. That is not what we are here to do. However, on the issue of developing relationships outside of our own sector, that is something that we try to do. I am not sure which fishing organisation that they represent, but both Alan McCulla and Dick James have attended events that we have hosted. In fact one of those events was held in the Long Gallery, involving the EEC office in Belfast. We do try to work together, and to find areas in which we agree with different groups. It is not always possible to find mutual ground, but where there is, we try to accentuate those positives.

1301. Mr S Kelly: In any of our events, whatever the subject may be, we try to include others, not only the environmental NGOs. We try to involve other organisations, such as the Ulster Farmers’ Union or the Federation of Small Businesses, because we try to achieve as much consensus as possible on the positive aspects, and to accentuate those positive aspects, and the areas in which we can work together. That is not to suggest that we agree with all different sectors on all issues. Of course we do not.

1302. Mr Shannon: I welcome the fact that you have had contact with Alan McCulla and Dick James, who represent two of those organisations. That is good news; they are two learned and experienced gentlemen, and I feel that their words are full of wisdom and understanding. I am sure that there are receptive ears in your organisation.

1303. The Chairperson: I sense that we have strayed a little off topic. Thank you for your presentation and for your answers to questions. If there is any additional information that you wish to provide, we will be very happy to receive it. It may well be that we will wish to seek clarification on other issues, and if so, we will contact you. Thank you for your attendance.

1 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Ms Frances McCandless
Ms Lisa McElherron

Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action

1304. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): I welcome Frances McCandless, the director of policy, and Lisa McElherron the policy manager of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA). I apologise for the slight delay in beginning the evidence session today.

1305. The Committee normally invites witnesses to make an opening statement, and then asks that they to make themselves available for questions. We anticipate the session lasting no longer than 30 minutes, but that is not meant to rush you.

1306. Ms Frances McCandless (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action): Thank you for your invitation. We are delighted to be before the Committee today.

1307. We already supplied the Committee with our written submission; therefore, we will not go over that in detail. We will highlight some areas in which NICVA is involved in European issues, how the sector in general is involved and in what direction we believe that it might be useful to go.

1308. As an organisation, we have a long history of engagement on European issues. For example, we provide members for monitoring committees, such as peace monitoring committees, INTERREG and existing competitiveness and employment programmes. Furthermore we, along with other partners, sit on the monitoring committees of those programmes and are usually involved in their negotiation. Moreover, we have been involved with the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) in the last two rounds of structural funds on working up some of the content of those programmes. Therefore, we have always taken a real interest in how the funding programmes play out.

1309. We tried to translate that engagement into a policy interest, because as we feel that Europe should not be viewed as a cash cow. We are trying to encourage our sector to think about the fact that almost 75% of our legislation comes form Brussels, and that we need to think about intervening early and influencing policy, rather than just thinking about the money. In addition, we have also been involved in selecting representatives for the local peace partnerships.

1310. Up until this year, we were an official Europe-direct information centre, and have been trying to get information out to our members. We also run training sessions on the European institutions, so that people are familiar with them. Furthermore, in the run up to this year’s European elections, we have held one session with all parties that are fielding candidates, and we will be running another hustings session before the elections. That session will attempt to arouse an interest in European electoral issues, which as the Committee will appreciate, is challenging. Therefore, we are engaged with Europe in many different ways.

1311. NICVA also works with its sister councils in England, Scotland and Wales and with The Wheel in the South of Ireland. That work is carried out on a five-council basis on cross-cutting issues, and through that we have been involved in pan-European networks of national member organisations. Therefore, we try to influence all levels.

1312. The Committee will see from our submission that many other organisations are involved in different ways, particularly on support and employment, which is a big issue in Europe. Those organisations are also involved in other issues such as gender, and I am aware that representatives from the Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform (NIWEP) are appearing before the Committee today. Rural issues, older people’s issues and anti-poverty issues are also considered. Therefore, many networks operate in our sector that we are plugged into and that are plugged into wider European networks.

1313. We have often been involved at implementation stages and with funding, but we would like NICVA — and Northern Ireland generally — to move upstream a little, and become much more involved in early conversations on policy and programme development. However, that would possibly involve altering our representation in Brussels.

1314. I was in Brussels last week and was based in the West Midlands in Europe office for a few days. That office is an interesting example of how a regional presence operates in Brussels. It is a partnership of local district councils, universities, notable local health bodies and other big players that work together to sell and influence on behalf of their region. Northern Ireland could also do that, and with the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels moving to a new location we believe that it may be timely for us to co-locate with it on a similar basis as the Scotland Europa office. That new office would form a network of member organisations — including social partners, education and many other different interests — in addition to the political representatives who would work together to maintain a presence for Northern Ireland in Europe.

1315. There are lots of options that we can explore to expand our influence, both as part of the UK — because that is the structure that we are in — but also sideways, because Northern Ireland’s regional interests need to be articulated in slightly different ways from those of the rest UK when the big conversations come up. We are very interested in working on the development of such an idea, or even exploring within the existing office the ideas of social partners having a presence, maybe once a month or through hot-desking. Agricultural representatives could be present one month and the business, voluntary and community sectors, trade unions, and so on could be present in subsequent months.

1316. We think that we can expand the service in many different ways. Having said that, we have always found the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels to be extremely helpful when we have been out there, and we commend the work that it has done.

1317. We cannot talk about this issue without mentioning funding. We know that funding has already decreased substantially and will decrease further. The areas that are currently targeted for funding will be left exposed when the funding finally runs out. We are concerned about how some of those areas can be mainstreamed. I am not talking just about peace and reconciliation; I am talking about areas that are funded under competitiveness and employment, such as sheltered employment, skills development and other areas that are funded almost entirely by European money. Such areas are important to the mainstream issues in the Northern Ireland economy.

1318. We are happy to take questions.

1319. The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation, it was very helpful.

1320. I must ask about sharing the office and how that would operate. Do you envisage each interest — business, community or voluntary sector — assisting with the costs of the operation, or do you see it as the duty of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) or the lead Department to fund such an operation?

1321. Ms McCandless: There are examples of how such schemes operate in other places. The member-organisations pay membership fees into a network that runs the office, and they share costs to a certain extent. It would be useful if the costs could fall more heavily on the organisations that could afford to contribute the most, because we do not want to inhibit voluntary and community organisations from membership.

1322. The Chairperson: That is almost like the old Northern Ireland Centre for European Co-operation, which was the precursor of the present arrangement, and in which local government had a significant role.

1323. Ms McCandless: Yes, perhaps, though with rather more of a link into existing institutions. We find that the organisations that we run are not well linked into our representatives on the Committee of the Regions or on the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). We have a European programmes advisory group that brings together all our interactions, but even the people out there who represent Northern Ireland in Brussels are not necessarily well linked into civil society here. We can work on all those issues.

1324. Mr Shannon: The voluntary and community sector has always sought grants and financial assistance. That is a fact of life, and, I make it clear that I believe that there is nothing wrong with that. If they can source some financial help, why would they not?

1325. However, Europe is retracting, or trying to restrict what financial assistance is on offer and, therefore, the emphasis has changed slightly. How will we focus on the changes that affect us? How can you be involved in that and help that to happen? In the final part of your presentation, you mentioned that your office had a relationship with the West Midlands in Europe office. Was that at local government level? How could we replicate that? It may be that the role of local government in Northern Ireland will change too; however, I do not think that it will become like it is across the water.

1326. Ms Lisa McElherron (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action): You are absolutely right about the funding; it is retracting from the more established economies, such as the UK and Germany, and it is moving towards the member states that joined in 2005 and the possible candidate countries such as Turkey and Macedonia. That will change the economic and geographical make-up of the European Union.

1327. We must become cleverer and look towards other funding, rather than the peace and reconciliation fund and structural funds. Each of the directorates-general has its own funding to support individual pieces of work, and much of it is transnational and trans-European. We are not particularly good at that.

1328. Certain sections of the voluntary and community sector — such as youth, and training and employment — are great at accessing that money. In general, however, we let lots of funding opportunities pass because they are transnational in nature and we do not have the resources and structures here to help organisations to get involved in transnational activity.

1329. The EU Culture programme is great, but Northern Ireland got involved in only two projects the last time round. Money is available from that programme. Money is also available from the Directorate-General Communication in relation to European citizenship, engagement and social capital. We do not necessarily tap into that because we take a narrow approach and go for either structural funds or peace funding. Although those funds are contracting, there are other matters that fit into Northern Ireland taking a broader approach to our European membership and working more with other member states on joint activity.

1330. Ms McCandless: I went to the West Midlands in Europe office through a link with the University of Warwick, which is located in the West Midlands. That office is not entirely driven by local government, but they are key players in it. It is linked into big networks such as EUROCITIES. Of course, you are right; our local councils will not take on the huge number of roles — such as education and social services — that English councils have.

1331. However, Belfast City Council is already a very big player in Europe. Other councils could come in behind it, especially as larger councils. There is a chief executives’ forum, and chief executives from the health bodies, the universities and the local councils work together on European issues and meet in Brussels.

1332. The office also does a lot of work back home in the West Midlands, trying to convey the messages that Lisa just mentioned, such as highlighting the opportunities that are available for tapping into and linking into. It is a two-way process, and it seems to work quite well.

1333. Ms McElherron: That is the link that we are missing. NICVA works with our members on European issues, and the trade unions are doing the same. Agricultural representatives and local government are also very active, particularly Belfast City Council. The meshing together of all that is where we are missing the step.

1334. The Committee of the Regions and ECOSOC are working well. The idea of presenting Northern Ireland, as a whole, on the European stage is where we are missing a trick. I am a very sad person — I became very excited when I saw that this Committee was examining that matter. It is something for which we, as European activists, have been pushing for a long time. We hope that this inquiry will help us to move that along.

1335. Mr Shannon: Do not be sad about that. We are also involved in that process and we are not sad.

1336. Ms McElherron: I also said that I was excited.

1337. The Chairperson: I think that we all need top get out more. [Laughter.]

1338. Ms Anderson: The connecting thread that runs through all the evidence that we have received is that we are not maximising opportunities here in the North, and that was pointed out by NILGA (Northern Ireland Local Government Association). We agree with you; we had a presentation and took evidence from Belfast City Council and a number of others, and we could see how far advanced Belfast City Council is.

1339. We were in Scotland and we dealt with your sister organisation. Even taking into consideration what you have relayed to us about the work that you are doing, that organisation seemed to have a robust and active engagement with Europe in comparison. Should the Assembly seek to emulate what is happening in Scotland with the organisation there that is the equivalent of NICVA, and ensure that we have that kind of connective link here? Do you think that that is one of the recommendations that we should consider?

1340. Ms McCandless: It would be. We think that Scotland Europa is an obvious model for us to follow.

1341. Ms McElherron: When Scotland Europa was set up, not everyone was equally involved. Our sister organisation is of the opinion that Scotland Europa does not necessarily work as well as it could for the voluntary and community sector. However, not a lot of voluntary and community sectors are members, so they are not producing information that is relevant to the sector — but they would if there were more members. The lesson for us is to ensure that all the social partners are equally involved in the setting up of such a scheme.

1342. The Chairperson: Thank you. In your presentation, you highlighted that matters are moving on and that we will not receive long-term funding from Europe. What is your general view as to how we spent the money that we did receive? There is a view among some that the Republic of Ireland spent its money on infrastructure projects, such as new roads, bridges and motorways, whereas we spent money on building bridges of a different type. Is there an argument for a detailed analysis, review or a study to be carried out, perhaps by one of the universities, into how European money was spent and the value that it accrued?

1343. Ms McCandless: Very detailed ex post evaluations are done for the Commission after every funding programme. As you said, we went for a different range of benefits because our needs were different, and, on the whole, those evaluations have been positive.

1344. In respect of peace and reconciliation funding, our take is that mainstream Government funding was sometimes pulling in a different direction and we wanted the tail of peace funding to wag the dog of Government spending, which sometimes propped up a divided society. Therefore, we must be careful about what we are looking at and what outcomes we expect. In the context of peace and reconciliation funding, overall Northern Ireland spending was a relatively small amount of money to transform a society that was otherwise interested in doing something else.

1345. The economic development numbers have looked good for our spending on the most recent couple of programmes. There is always a difficulty in drawing down the money and spending it, but from our perspective on monitoring committees, we have been largely happy with how that money has been spent.

1346. The Chairperson: Finally, the Barroso task force report almost indicated that there was no new money, but that there were, perhaps, different ingenuous ways of drawing down money. What is your overall view on that, on the responses, and on the likely impact?

1347. Ms McCandless: If we get cleverer — more joined up — we could access more of that money. As Lisa said earlier, transnational elements are often the complications; it is not easy to pluck a French partner out of the air. [Laughter.]

1348. The Chairperson: I have not tried that. I will speak to my wife about that. I am sure that she would be very understanding. [Laughter.]

1349. Ms McCandless: It is interesting that places such as Scotland also qualify for INTERREG, as does the South of Ireland; therefore, we can get a three-way partnership going for those programmes. However, it is extremely difficult to form partnerships for programmes that require partners in more distant places. A bit of brokerage and more joined-up thinking would help us to access different types of funding.

1350. Ms McElherron: I agree with the notion — as Frances said — of not seeing Europe as a cash cow and of approaching it in a more positive way by offering rather than asking for things all the time. For example, NICVA was involved with member states around civil society and the creation of an independent voluntary and community sector and charity management. It is the norm for people here to offer information on peace building, but there are other things that we are very good at that we can showcase across Europe and take a lead in transnational partnerships. Supported employment is an issue on which we have led in the EQUAL programme and that has generated a lot of great learning across Europe, led by partners from Northern Ireland.

1351. Therefore, we have much to offer, and there must be a more joined-up and positive approach to Europe. Ultimately, asking what we can bring to the table, as well as maximising what we can get, will serve us all better.

1352. Ms Anderson: When the Committee met David Trimble at Westminster he said that the British Government was making a recommendation that structural funds should not be skewed towards the North. His view was that that would have no impact here, because it was not additional money and, therefore, it would not have an impact on the system. Last week, trade unions that appeared before the Committee took a contrary view — they thought that it would have an impact and that it was a move that should not be supported. What is your view?

1353. Ms McCandless: That is the position that the UK Government took last time round on the structural funds from 2007-2013. We did not support that view at that time. We saw that the new accession countries had much greater needs than our member states as a whole, but pockets of deprivation that must be dealt with are still seen within the richer member states.

1354. However, it is true that the funds are additional only at Treasury level. If we were still able to access that money, it would make no difference to us whether it came from Europe other than the scrutiny mechanisms that come with European spending programmes, which we, as social partners, welcome.

1355. The Chairperson: Thank you very much for your contribution and for responding to our questions. I will investigate that French partner thing. [Laughter.]

1356. We will be happy to receive any further information that you can provide. If we have any queries we will make you aware of them so that you can address them in turn.

1 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Chris Williamson

Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations

1357. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): This evidence session is with a representative of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA). A written submission has been provided. I welcome Mr Chris Williamson, who is an old friend of this Committee in its various forms. Please make a short opening statement, after which members will ask questions.

1358. Mr Chris Williamson (Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations): Thank you, I am delighted to do so. I am sorry that my written submission arrived with the Committee at the last minute.

1359. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk to the Committee and to answer members’ questions. The paper that I provided is short, simple and uncomplicated. However, I emphasise that the federation is closely interested in what goes on in Europe, and, more particularly, in Europe’s impact here.

1360. Like the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA), the federation believes that it has something to offer the rest of Europe rather than just taking ideas and money from it. Members might well ask what on earth social housing has to do with the EU. The top-line answer is nothing; it is not within one of the so-called competences of the European Union. To my mind, however, social housing is definitely one of the underpinning foundations of the EU.

1361. It contributes to economic efficiency, which the EU is all about. There is a great deal of empirical evidence to suggest that having a variety of tenures and the flexibility of rented tenure, as well as owner occupation, which is unique in these islands compared with the rest of Europe, is helpful to economic development. The provision of good quality affordable homes for people who are at the lower end of the economic spectrum is important for the same reason.

1362. Freedom of movement is one of the principles of the EU, and good-quality rented accommodation stock is important in facilitating free movement of labour from one region to another.

1363. The term “social inclusion" probably came from Europe and has, rightly, been adopted here, because it is a helpful concept. The social housing sector is all about social inclusion. If for no other reason, affordable rents are a big help in getting people into employment. Given the benefits structure in the UK, high rents are a disincentive for people to take up low-paid employment. If the rent is relatively low, the disincentive effect is less. I am not saying that it is eliminated, but it is less.

1364. Environmental sustainability has rocketed up the European and world agenda — not quickly enough for my liking, I might add. Social housing across Europe and in our country has been leading the way in doing something positive and practical to get housing up to good spatial and environmental standards. However, we have a long way to go; we are hardly even at the starting line, but at least the social sector is leading the way in a practical sense.

1365. Europe impacts on social housing in two ways, one of which might be viewed as negative. Sometimes, Europe, even though it does not mean to, can get in the way, because of its complex and large population, and political and financial structures. Sometimes, European bureaucracy and other well-meaning rules can simply get in the way. The second impact is much more positive. I have given a number of examples, one of which resonates with what NICVA’s representatives just said about the supported employment programme.

1366. One of our members — Triangle Housing Association, which is based in Ballymoney and operates throughout the North of Ireland — has made creative use of that money to help hundreds of people to get gainful employment, in the mainstream, that they would not have got otherwise. Another recent, and possibly more publicised, example is that of Clanmil Housing Association, which was able to get hold of money from the European Investment Bank at lending rates that are lower than the current official rate of lending.

1367. The Chairperson: Is that still going?

1368. Mr Williamson: Oh, yes. We are talking about a financing arrangement. You might be thinking of a project in which there was not enough public money to allow it to proceed in the financial year that has just finished. However, Clanmil Housing Association got money from the European Investment Bank for real projects. Those houses are sitting there now, they are occupied. That funding was extremely helpful, because every fraction of a percentage point that can be saved on interest rates has a direct impact on the viability of the organisation and on the rent that has to be charged of the tenants.

1369. In addition, even though Northern Ireland is not the dominant player at the national level, it still has a voice in UK matters. I draw your attention to the issue of VAT rates. It has long been a matter of great concern to our federation that until recently the rate of VAT on renovation was 17·5% and the rate of VAT on new construction was 0%. That has an immediate and long-term impact on the issue of environmental sustainability, which I mentioned earlier. That puts the financial lever in favour of knocking down and rebuilding, rather than making use of what is already there. Often, in environmental terms, it is by no means necessary to knock down the entire street or property.

1370. NICVA’s representatives also mentioned structural funds. I am not as well versed as they are about exactly what the position is. I know that for the first time, a chink has opened in which housing can get access to structural funds, at least in theory. I am not saying that it can be accessed in Northern Ireland right now. However, until quite recently there was a blanket “no", and now there is now a little “yes", whereby structural funds can be used to improve the energy efficiency of existing homes. I re-emphasise that I need to check the detail of whether that extends to the UK and Northern Ireland. That might seem minor, but it is quite a major breakthrough.

1371. Our federation has been working with counterparts in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and from throughout Europe ever since it was founded more than 30 years ago. The European Liaison Committee for Social Housing or CECODHAS — which is a horrible acronym — is very good at doing exactly the sort of work that the representatives of NICVA spoke about earlier in trying to get in at the very beginning of policy formulation in Europe.

1372. Even more so than in this Assembly, it is desperately important to get in at the beginning of policy formulation in Europe, because it is just so complicated. There are so many aspects to it that, once the wheels start going in a particular direction, it is hard to get them shifted. CECODHAS has proved increasingly effective at representing the social housing sector in what, on the surface, might look like stony ground for social housing.

1373. To return to what I was saying at the start of my presentation, housing is not an EU competence per se. However, I believe that it is fundamental for the proper operation of the EU.

1374. The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation and for the paper that you submitted. It may be useful to find out roughly how many people have been helped through the initiatives that are run by Clanmil Housing Association and Triangle Housing Association. If that additional information could be provided at some stage, that would be very helpful.

1375. Do you think that, historically, we have got the balance right in how we have spent European money?

1376. Mr Williamson: I am not sure, but I know that certain programmes were available only to Northern Ireland, and I hope that we made the fullest possible use of those programmes. A more useful suggestion may be to look at the present and the future, rather than looking back, and try to position ourselves much more cleverly. The business of clever working is the name of the game. Any kind of tools that can be used should be used, such as those that the NICVA representatives mentioned.

1377. We had a bit of a laugh about French partners, but it is true; there are things in the field of energy efficiency, for instance, in the housing field, where the programme information is submitted to me by email, and it states that we need to have at least three other European partners in different countries. Even with our links through CECODHAS that I mentioned and praised, it is hard to get those things lined up, especially within the time frame that is required to submit a valid submission.

1378. If there are ways and means, and I am not giving you answers, I am just saying that that would be an area where better or more directed minds than mine may come up with some bright ideas to help position the Northern Ireland players — voluntary, private and public — better than they have done in the past.

1379. Ms Anderson: Although you say that social housing does not have an EU competence, with regards to EU planning directives and the need for intervention in the early stage of formulation of policy, what impact do planning directives have on the provision of social housing or in the development of social housing?

1380. Mr Williamson: That depends on what you mean by planning, but I think what you are getting at are things to do with the environmental assessments. The EU is definitely a classic example of what the NICVA representatives said, in that such a high proportion of our legislation comes directly from Europe, and that is one of them.

1381. The answer to your question about environmental assessments is that it has had a pretty minimal effect so far in the social housing field. However, there are definitely a couple of schemes that I know of where it has had a direct impact. As time goes on, social housing is being built on more difficult sites. By difficult, I mean places where there is contaminated land, for example, the gasworks site off the Ormeau Road, or Cromac Street in Belfast, where they had to dig a great big hole in the ground, about 10 ft deep, and physically transport that material away to a safe site before the land could be reused for the office park that it now is. That kind of thing, on a smaller scale, is happening to more and more social housing sites. So far, the impact has been quite limited, but, over time, it will build up.

1382. Moving on to what the man or woman in the street might call planning, Europe does not tell us how to do our area plans or that kind of detail. You are quite right, however, that it has a fundamental impact on those sorts of environmental and other assessments.

1383. Ms Anderson: You applauded the European Liaison Committee for Social Housing. How firm a connection does the federation have with it? Does information flow from it to you? Is your organisation a member of it?

1384. Mr Williamson: I get emails at least monthly, and sometimes more frequently than that. Regular news-sheets are issued, which I circulate to all of our federation’s members. Half-yearly meetings take place. My chairman and I went to the most recent one, although I will not be attending the next one. General assemblies take place between those half-yearly meetings, and working groups meet on a range of issues, including urban regeneration. Those meetings take place at different venues. I have not been to those, but I make it my business to attend one of the general assemblies at least once every two years.

1385. I find that those meetings are a curate’s egg in that they are good in parts. There is always enough good, positive networking and keeping in touch with the main European issues to make them worthwhile.

1386. Mr Shannon: Chris, you admitted that you do not have much influence with Europe, but your presentation lists the practical ways in which you can help. How can other housing associations be made aware of how they can get loans from the European Investment Bank, which is advantageous because the rates are good? That will be advantageous to all housing associations, not just Clanmil.

1387. You mentioned how the building sustainable prosperity programmes supported people with learning disabilities. Those are practical issues that Europe can enhance and help. How can you do that? Do you contact all the housing associations directly and ensure that they are aware of those opportunities? Sometimes such opportunities get lost in the paperwork, but it is important that contact, if not ready-made, is reinforced.

1388. Mr Williamson: I accept those points. It is a function of our federation to keep the communication channels going, and it is one of our specific aims to promote the dissemination of good practice. The examples that you have quoted are clear instances of that, and I assure you that we are not behind the door when it comes to putting the word around about those kinds of issues. Not every housing association is engaged in supported-employment exercises, but the principle applies. I assure you that our federation has always circulated that kind of information, rather than allowing it to be kept secret.

1389. I hope that you will recognise the magazine that I have brought. It is called ‘POSH’, which stands for perspective on social housing. We send it to you very four months, and you can bet your bottom dollar that one of its issues will, before long, include a reference to an issue to do with the European Investment Bank. That is another vehicle for getting the word out, and an electronic news-sheet is sent only to our members. That is sent out from my office every fortnight. In fact, the latest one went out this morning.

1390. If I may, I will show the Committee an example of a document that was produced by CECODHAS. It is called ‘Safe as Houses — EU Social Housing Organisations: Preventing and Dealing With Anti-Social Behaviour’. It is a couple of years old, and I happened to see it on the shelf when I was leaving my office. I can leave it with the Committee Clerk, and if Committee members want more copies, I am sure that we could get them. That document is an example of case studies of real examples being taken at a European level of projects in Britain, Spain or wherever have devised schemes that try to mitigate antisocial behaviour. Those schemes are written up, and the communication mechanism exists to put word out.

1391. Mr Shannon: You mentioned that the EU has cleared a path for national Governments to reduce the rate of VAT. We are dealing with the Labour Party, which has delivered the highest ever level of taxation on the nation of Britain. What impact have you had in trying to get the Government to look at reducing VAT on housing repairs to 5%?

1392. Mr Williamson: That is where we link up with our UK counterparts — there are equivalent federations in England, Scotland and Wales. There is also one in the Republic of Ireland, but we are talking about the UK with regard to VAT on housing repairs. For years, the four federations in the UK, which meet every six months, have made formal submissions to a number of Chancellors of the Exchequer. So far, that approach has been to no avail, but I remain hopeful; the way that circumstances have moved in recent years is very much in our favour, so it is just a matter of time. It is a bit of a tragedy, because if the reform had taken place earlier things would have been a lot better.

1393. Mr Spratt: Governments have to raise their finances from taxes, and you said that a number of submissions have been made to Chancellors of the Exchequer. There will always be house repairs, because there is not a knock down and a rebuild in every case. If the VAT on housing repairs was reduced, have you thought about where the money to cover that will come from? My worry is that the money would have to come out of the social housing budget. Have you had any other thoughts on where the money could come from? The Government have to find the money through taxes, so if there is a reduction in the VAT on housing repairs, where will the money to cover that be found?

1394. Mr Williamson: That is an entirely fair question. It would be entirely wrong and completely unfair to say that social housing would pay for the reduction, because VAT is a huge tax.

1395. Mr Spratt: Would it come from the budgets for construction or the Health Service?

1396. Mr Williamson: Housing is only a very small proportion of the VAT take, and it makes up only one part of the construction budget, which is a much bigger entity. Social housing is an even smaller proportion of that budget. We are not so starry eyed as to say that you can do away with a tax without there being some implication through less services or higher taxes somewhere else. We favour an evening out of taxes: it is crazy to have 0% tax on new construction and a 17·5% tax on building something like an extension on a house that is perfectly sound but just needs enlargement. The more likely solution would be an evening out of the taxation.

1397. Mr Spratt: Would you say that the same percentage of tax should exist across the board?

1398. Mr Williamson: Yes, something along those lines. Account should be taken of the relative scale of the two operations; new constructions on the one hand, and renovation or repair work on the other.

1399. The Chairperson: The Barroso report was mentioned as were the different ways of accessing EU funds by through collaboration on a European-wide basis — the phrase “more clever ways" was used. Is it not now up to bodies, such as yours, to proactively investigate those rather than simply wait for the Executive or the Government to make a suggestion? Is it not incumbent on your organisation, and other organisations, to investigate those on a pragmatic and positive basis, and do you hope to do so?

1400. Mr Williamson: The answer is yes. What was the second question?

1401. The Chairperson: If the answer to the first question is yes, the answer to the second question is yes.

1402. Thank you very much indeed, Chris for your presentation and your responses to our questions. If there is any other information that you want to provide for us, or if we have any queries, we will be in touch.

1403. Mr Williamson: You asked me to look into a question for you, and I will certainly do that.

1404. The Chairperson: Thank you very much indeed.

1 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Ms Bronagh Hinds
Ms Anne-Marie Gray
Ms Elizabeth Law

Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform

1405. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): I welcome the representatives of the Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform, whose written submission is included in the members’ pack. I welcome Bronagh Hinds, Elizabeth Law and Anne-Marie Gray. The usual format is that you make a short presentation and then make yourselves available for questions. The session is being recorded by Hansard for later publication. We look forward to what you have to say and we expect the session to last for approximately 25 minutes.

1406. Ms Elizabeth Law (Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform): Thank you. We very much welcome the opportunity to meet with you on the importance that European matters have for Northern Ireland, especially, we believe, at the moment, given the enlarged European Union and our own peace building. We are very glad to be with you.

1407. The Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform (NIWEP) is the expert co-ordination for the United Kingdom member of the European Women’s Lobby, which in turn, is the Commission’s expert body on gender matters. NIWEP works across all institutions of the EU dealing with issues which are of importance to women. Essentially, that is all issues. In that capacity, I am the UK board member of the European Women’s Lobby.

1408. We have done European international work and we have worked more widely in international work. In that realm, NIWEP has secured special consultative status with the UN, and we were the first body in Northern Ireland to do that. Anne-Marie led the UK non-governmental organisation (NGO) delegation to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). We believe that it is very important to have engagement on European matters through networking, and through the learning and sharing, across member states, of good practice on issues that we can address.

1409. We included in our written submission the range of issues that we have touched on and been involved in. We will leave you a copy of a report of our most recent work, which was done under a European programme called Plan D. That report says a lot more about the Women’s European Platform and about the issues that concern women across Northern Ireland, from other agencies and from statutory bodies. That work was part funded by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). It will give you a fuller picture and we will be glad to answer any questions that you might have on that.

1410. Our submission touches on three areas on which the Committee wished to consult. The first of those is the strategic approach that was suggested by the Barroso task force. That is important to consideration of our emergence from conflict and how we use UN Security Council resolution 1325 to put in place an effective role for women in peace building, particularly given the review of public administration. The other aspect that the Barroso report embraces is social capital. We have strong views on the importance of fully capitalising on social capital and community-development models in order for Northern Ireland to thrive.

1411. The second area that we looked at is the role of the Assembly and the scrutiny function of this Committee. You have taken up that role to mainstream gender equality, and the vehicle for that is the gender equality strategy and the targets therein. There is a great opportunity to look at how equality for women can be ensured. We recognise that giving attention to EU matters is a considerable responsibility for the Committee as part of its scrutiny role.

1412. We recommend that there should be a separate EU and wider international committee, because there are significant responsibilities and challenges. We commend to you the opportunity to use NIWEP, the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) and other organisations that have European expertise and an international focus. We can offer key skills such as networking and our experience of working with other European member states. There is a challenge to resource and support all that, but the Committee has an opportunity to benefit from the relationships that have been built. We are happy to advise further on the detailed practicalities of that work.

1413. The third area is crucial and concerns interfacing domestic and EU policy. What is the link between what happens in the European Union and domestic policy, and how does it make a difference for all the people who live here? We recommend that there should be strengthened engagement with MEPs and Northern Ireland representatives who sit on the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. There are good links, partnerships, sharing and models that can be built upon to the benefit of domestic policy. We have relationships with some, but not all, of the European Union institutions, so there is more work to be done in that regard.

1414. It is important that Northern Ireland maintains a profile in Europe and, indeed, that is increasingly the case because of the enlargement of the European Union. Our profile in Europe has been a key benefit over the years, and we believe that that will continue to be the case.

1415. It must be remembered that the United Kingdom is the member state. Therefore, it is an imperative to address the profile of Northern Ireland within the member state, whether that be across the UK and/or in partnership with Scotland and Wales, or, potentially, in partnership with the other member state with which we have a land border — the Republic of Ireland.

1416. Those are the positive suggestions and the thrust to the way forward as we see it. We will take your questions and look more at the practicalities of the outworking of the opportunities that we see.

1417. The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation. Do you think that Northern Ireland has spent its EU money wisely? Was it spent well, compared with the Irish Republic who spent a lot of its EU money on infrastructural projects rather than the bridge-building of a different nature that we are investing in? How much has been achieved by the way in which we have spent our EU money?

1418. Ms Bronagh Hinds (Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform): We have a number of comments to make about that issue. There is only so much money, and one cannot do everything with the funding. Investment in infrastructure is important, but it is also important to have invested in businesses and in social capital — as was mentioned earlier. From having headed up Oxfam in the past and working internationally, I know that Northern Ireland is looked to because of its social capital and community infrastructure. It is a model throughout the world. Some of the money that has been spent around social capital has been spent well, as has some that that has been spent in supporting some of the business elements.

1419. The importance of ensuring that there was equality monitoring in relation to the spend came late to Europe. I want to make specific mention of gender and the international and European drive for gender budgeting. That is very much linked to this Committee’s role in scrutiny and providing leadership in mainstreaming equality, including gender equality. Perhaps, the Committee might want to think about how it can speak to Departments in the future about gender budgeting to ensure that there is a fair spend across all beneficiaries of domestic and international funding.

1420. The Chairperson: Your paper questions whether Northern Ireland’s representation at the EU is being used effectively. It said that:

“Scant attention appears to be paid to our MEPs and the deliberations of the European Parliament by either the Executive or Assembly Committees."

On what do you base that?

1421. Ms Hinds: First, we have seen very little of that in the debates, and we have picked up comments that have been made by MEPs, and others, about their lack of engagement or lack of engagement in linking the European and domestic policy.

1422. Secondly, we came in to the meeting at the tail end of Mr Williamson’s evidence, and we heard his comment about the federation’s role in linking to Europe in respect of funding. We are trying to press that the missing link at the Northern Ireland end is that some groups, such as NIWEP and others, are beavering away and making links or representing Northern Ireland in Europe — officially or in less official organisations — but there is not sufficient mapping of that. Neither is there sufficient co-ordination of that, sufficient knowledge of that being shared or sufficient use being made of that.

1423. We were making the point that someone — and presumably it needs to come from our political leaders here — needs to be tying in those kinds of European and other international relations. The individuals need not be political representatives, but they could be from NGOs, business or elsewhere. They will have to try to achieve the maximum benefit and profile for Northern Ireland.

1424. Ms Anne-Marie Gray (Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform): Part of that bigger picture is that the public will be led by what they see happening in the Assembly and Executive. We consulted extensively on the CEDAW report to the United Nations and our other European work, and the public perception was that the EU is not a priority in Northern Ireland or its politics. The public in Northern Ireland do not engage with the European debates even to the extent that the public in England, Scotland and Wales does.

1425. Our finding is supported by academic evidence from the Northern Ireland life and times survey, which was carried out by the two universities a number of years ago. It contained a module on attitudes to Europe in its annual survey and found the public perception of Europe to be ambivalent rather than overly negative. The public did not see the importance of Europe or consider themselves informed about it. They did not feel that they could talk informatively about some of the main debates, for example, whether to enter the Euro zone.

1426. If we are to encourage an effective degree of public participation and debate, the Assembly, Executive and OFMDFM must show leadership, perhaps with the help of organisations that do, and are seen to, engage effectively with Europe.

1427. The Chairperson: Surely the Barroso task force report highlights opportunities that have not previously been taken but could be now? Why wait for the Government to act? Why are the bodies not proactive?

1428. Ms Gray: NIWEP is, and has consistently been, proactive, as have other organisations. It is also fair to say that we had to be proactive on a shoestring because we have not been well resourced. We are a NGO and most of the work is carried out by volunteers, yet we have still managed to achieve consultative status at the UN and UK expert representation at the European Women’s Lobby. However, the issue is about how organisations can be expected to carry out this high-level policy work without being adequately resourced. Perhaps the Committee and Executive will have to think about that for the future.

1429. Mr Spratt: Thank you for your presentation. As a representative of South Belfast, I have an interest in the issue of women who are being brought across and used as sex slaves. The police have been involved in some good operations to tackle that and domestic violence, and they have co-operated with your organisation. Can any more be done in Europe to tackle trafficking, particularly that of young women for the sex market?

1430. Ms Law: An international approach to all types of trafficking is important. There must be consistent guidelines, and the European Women’s Lobby has a specific project on trafficking within its observatory on violence against women. There is, therefore, a significant workstream on violence against women. Within that, the particular concentration on trafficking recognises that only an international response with shared guidelines and shared support for women in that situation will address the problem. Member states must share their knowledge and good practice to create a common approach whose straightforward objective is the elimination of sex trafficking.

1431. Mr Spratt: There is clearly international and member state co-operation on intelligence and police co-operation on what is a huge problem throughout the world. Specifically, do you recognise the co-operation that there is from a policing perspective, and do you feel that more needs to be done at Government level or within the member states to deal with that situation?

1432. Ms Law: It has to happen on all those levels, so that the Government has a co-ordinated, inter-sectoral response and picks up on the providers of services in instances of trafficking. The policy line on the issue comes from the wider international work and the recommendations of CEDAW, which also dealt with trafficking and the resources that need to be applied to address the issue. That policy is applied through the EU roadmap, and the European Women’s Lobby has established an observatory on violence against women. That project brings together countries internationally, but also on a three-dimensional model so that, within the countries, the inter-agency work, Government work, and NGO work is involved in that. There is a consistent response on all levels, which criminalises the trafficker and supports the woman.

1433. The European Women’s Lobby Nordic Baltic project has quite a lot of information and models of good practice. I am glad to gather some of that information and provide it to the Committee in more detail, if that would be helpful.

1434. Mr Spratt: That would be helpful; thank you.

1435. Ms Hinds: CEDAW required the UK Government to develop a national strategy on violence against women in June 2008, and they are supposed to be working on that. The Home Office is carrying out a survey, which has gone out for consultation in England. We know that the End Violence Against Women coalition in Northern Ireland is on a round of meetings with Government Departments, but we need all Government Departments to address the issue, and an effective Northern Ireland strategy that interlocks with those in Scotland, Wales and England. We would like the Committee to keep an eye on that, so that, when we report back to CEDAW, we will have the highest standards in the UK.

1436. The Chairperson: We are happy to receive additional information, and if you want to include suggestions as to how we might contribute, we will be happy to receive those also.

1437. Ms Anderson: It would do no harm for you to contact the Policing Board, because the human rights and professional standards committee is due to report on domestic violence; we should also keep an eye on that, so that we can make a contribution.

1438. The paper that you previously sent to the Committee commented on the valuable contribution that the North can make to conflict resolution and peace building. I support those comments, and they flag up the need for a conflict transformation centre. Dare I say it — as someone who sits in what I feel is a male equivalent of ‘Jurassic Park’ — I think if that was driven more by women, it may have been further advanced.

1439. The Chairperson: Which arena do you refer to when you say ‘Jurassic Park’?

1440. Ms Anderson: Many arenas that I sit in; particularly this one. I do not mean this Committee — well, not particularly this Committee, I should say. I should qualify that, because some of the men here are quite progressive and advanced. However, I am one of the few women who sit in the Assembly — particularly as you ask the question, there are only three female unionist MLAs. I have met the most dynamic and robust individuals from the unionist community, but I do not think that they are represented when I look across the Benches at the entire unionist representation.

1441. Mr Shannon: I represent them, as do Stephen and Jimmy.

1442. Ms Anderson: I answered the question that the Chairperson asked.

1443. The Chairperson: Let us move on from ‘Jurassic Park’.

1444. Ms Anderson: Will you give a little more detail of your views on the UN resolution 1325 with regard to the role of women in peace building? That is quite important, and a research paper on it was produced prior to the Assembly motion on the need for more support for women.

1445. Ms Gray: We believe that it is central to the progression of women’s issues on lots of levels. In Northern Ireland, there are many examples of good practice of women being centrally involved in peace building during conflict, as well as post-conflict. However, we feel that that has not been adequately acknowledged. United Nations resolution 1325 is about ensuring equal participation of women in decision-making structures, not just in structures specifically linked to peace, criminal justice, and so on. Therefore, we have the ideal mechanism in the review of public administration for ensuring that women’s representation is very much enhanced.

1446. When we look globally to Europe and to the United Nations, we see people looking to women in Northern Ireland for lessons in how to do that. We know that, because we are asked to provide information about models of good practice and about women’s roles in peace building. In fact, recently, we were asked to identify a number of women from Northern Ireland to participate in a high-level conference on women and peace building across the world. Therefore, other countries can see the contribution that women have made in Northern Ireland, and we think that it is time that it is acknowledged here. It is required to be acknowledged through resolution 1325, but progress has been slow.

1447. The United Kingdom is perceived as a country that has been associated with active promotion of the resolution in other countries, and that was the case. However, it has been neglected in its application here.

1448. NIWEP has been lobbying on the issue for some years. It is not a new resolution. In July 2008, CEDAW expressed its frustration at the lack of progress on the issue, and we are keen to look at ways to take it forward.

1449. Ms Hinds: There is good practice here, and there are models here that we can use, and that we have been asked to use, abroad, as Anne-Marie said. However, CEDAW was concerned about the lack of attention across the board to resolution 1325 in Northern Ireland.

1450. We are glad that there are increased numbers of women in the police, but the numbers need to increase further. It is about the involvement of women in the resolution of conflict, negotiation and peace building. There are also an inadequate number of women who are board members of public bodies, and even fewer women chair public bodies. All those areas have been identified under resolution 1325, as well as women’s involvement in peace building.

1451. We know that there is a huge under-representation of women in our political structures, and there has to be leadership from the top. We will not comment on the previous debate, but only 14 % of MLAs are women and only 21% of councillors in local government are women. There has been reform of local government in Britain. Task forces are also being set up in Britain to address the problems that they did not address when they reformed local government, that is, the under-representation of groups, particularly women, and, particularly, black and ethnic minority groups and women.

1452. We are in the middle of reorganising local government. The most effective way to make change is to ensure that it is written into legislation, and that it is written into the constitutions of new councils and into the methods for selection and organisation of councils, with regard to senior management, middle management and selection of politicians.

1453. For some people, that raises an issue about special temporary measures and positive action. However, the United Nations CEDAW has recommended the adoption of special temporary measures by political parties, and others, to ensure that we redress the traditional under-representation of women. I will just draw your attention to the fact that that is permitted under legislation in the UK. It is not required, but it is permitted for political parties to take such steps, and the golden opportunity is selection for local government in the review of public administration.

1454. Mr Spratt: We have a democratic process of selection — maybe not like some other parties.

1455. The Chairperson: I have a sense that we have strayed slightly into a different area, rather than European issues, which is today’s subject. I can see the connections and the links, and the point has been well made.

1456. Mr Shannon: You referred to a piece of work you carried out called Plan D. I am keen to see how that can be applied to Northern Ireland. You also commented on encouraging the media to improve its coverage of European affairs. What are your thoughts on those two issues?

1457. Ms Law: Plan D is about raising awareness and understanding of the European Commission and of the other EU institutions. Our approach was to look at the important issues for women and for other people in Northern Ireland, to see how those institutions made a difference, and to see how women could be involved in policymaking at European level in order to influence those policies and decisions for the changes that they would like to see here.

1458. Our approach to Plan D was about linking the issues that are highlighted through CEDAW that streamed through the European road map on gender equality and then had an impact on the lives of women in Northern Ireland. It is parallel to the streams and the issues that are in the gender equality strategy, and it is another mechanism that brings those issues home and ensures that change and policymaking are for the enhancement of society.

1459. Ms Hinds: The other part of Plan D, which is mentioned in our submission, is that, being European, we need to think more domestically and link to the global. It is not a question of separating what we do in Northern Ireland, what we do in Europe and what we do at international level. It is about thinking in a more comprehensive way, which will link up all those policy areas.

1460. Plan D was about to develop European awareness, but it was very much on the model of citizenship and people’s engagement in democracy, the relationship between elected democracy and participative democracy, and engaging people in the debate. Having carried out an extensive range of consultations, major conferences and expert round tables, we found that once we were able to describe things in domestic policy matters and how that linked to the European policy agenda, the European policy agenda had to shape some of the issues that we deal with.

1461. We were not dealing with academic women only, but with a wide range of women from estate-based women round the greater Belfast area, academic women, political women and others. They appreciated that understanding and relationship between the domestic level, the European level and the international level. They were able to talk about issues that mattered very much to them on the ground and saw where that related and how we needed to represent that at a European level.

1462. I will digress and tell the Committee a funny story. I was at a conference with the Women’s Information Group, which represents women in estates across Belfast. One of our number gave a presentation using Abba songs, in order to take people through the debate on Europe and to make it real. Believe me, one can link Abba link to the issues.

1463. The Chairperson: ‘Money, Money, Money.’ ‘Take a Chance on Me.’

1464. Ms Hinds: All those; it really was quite funny.

1465. The Chairperson: What about ‘Waterloo’? [Laughter.]

1466. Ms Hinds: We talked about bendy bananas and straight carrots, so, knowing the mayhem that is sometimes promoted in the press about European restrictions, we wish to put on the record that we believe that Europe — I speak as someone who, in the 1970s, was part of the anti-Europe campaign, but I have had a conversion — has been good on gender-equality issues for women. We never hear those positive stories in the media, so we must think about, and situate, some of our domestic policies within a European framework, and our politicians must put a positive spin on Europe in the media.

1467. Given that Northern Ireland is a small region, we are concerned to maintain not just our link with Europe, but a good profile of Europe here and a good profile of Northern Ireland in Europe. In order to do that, we need the media, so we must work on that together.

1468. The Chairperson: So, it is not a case of ‘The Winner Takes it All’. ‘Mamma Mia’.

1469. Thank you for your contributions. You indicated that you will provide additional information, and we may seek further information and clarification. In which case, we will contact you.

22 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:

Mr Gerry Campbell
Ms Patricia Lewsley

Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People

1470. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): The first evidence session was due to have involved the Children’s Law Centre but has been cancelled because of illness. The Committee will give the centre another date on which to attend.

1471. The next session involves someone who is clearly very well — the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), Patricia Lewsley, whom I welcome. She is accompanied today by Gerry Campbell. I thank the witnesses for their attendance and for coming to the meeting earlier than was scheduled. I invite the witnesses to make a short presentation, which will be followed by questions from members.

1472. Ms Patricia Lewsley (Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People): I thank the Committee for inviting us to give evidence. I want to make a few general points and then touch on the three specific questions from the Committee.

1473. In my role as Commissioner for Children and Young People, my core remit is with the Northern Ireland Assembly, hence that is my priority. Aside from that, there are commissioners in the three other jurisdictions and an ombudsman in the South of Ireland. Together, we comprise the British and Irish Network of Ombudsmen and Children’s Commissioners (BINOCC).

1474. Although my priority is Northern Ireland, it is important that we consider the impact of Westminster legislation. Lately, therefore, the BINOCC group has given evidence to the all-party working group on children on the concluding observations that came from Geneva last year, and some weeks ago it gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

1475. An extension of that aspect of our work is the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC). That group shares information and strategies and looks at collective approaches to ensuring that children’s rights are fulfilled.

1476. In the past, we have also produced position papers on issues such as disability, juvenile justice, separated children seeking asylum, and violence against children. Currently, ENOC is chaired by Emily Logan, who is the ombudsman from the South. That position is rotated on an annual basis and goes to France in September of this year. We have recently set up a secretariat in Strasbourg to support ENOC’s work in Europe.

1477. I will now turn to the three questions that the Committee asked. The Committee may know of some of the things that we will mention, some may already be in place, and some may simply be suggestions that we want to make.

1478. The Committee’s first point of contact is the three MEPs. Recently, we have contacted them to establish how we can work with them, in their role as MEPs, and with the three European bodies — that is, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Commission. We are aware of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, and it may be that, in the future, it will have an enhanced role in monitoring policies that emerge from the EU. There is also a European unit in OFMDFM that could probably have a much stronger role in scrutinising EU policy, which would help the Committee to examine many of those policies.

1479. For me, the Committee’s scrutiny role is vital, particularly in relation to EU directives. The Assembly has seen the effect of EU directives in the past, particularly when it comes to the issue of sanctions being incurred. That scrutiny role provides the Committee with an opportunity to shape EU directives as early as possible and ensure that they are implemented.

1480. For example, the European Commission is currently drafting an EU directive on anti-discrimination and equal treatment, which is intended to extend the law beyond the workplace to cover areas such as goods, facilities, education, and health care. That directive considers certain categories, and the one that we are concerned with is age. Often, children and young people are not thought about in relation to that category, but that is where they fit in.

1481. For us, some of the relevant issues are the minimum wage and minimum benefits that are given to 16- and 17-year-olds in particular. Therefore, it is important that there is an opportunity to have an input at the drafting stage. That is particularly important because of the ripple effect that that piece of legislation could have on the proposed single equality Bill here in Northern Ireland.

1482. In relation to the Committee’s second question, although we do not have any specific comment or contribution to make on the issue of the economy at this stage, we believe that the economy has a ripple effect on children, particularly in relation to poverty. We welcome yesterday’s debate on childcare that was held in the Chamber, and we know that the Executive make policies in relation to such issues. We are also aware of the EU strategy entitled ‘Building a Europe for and with children — 2009-2011 strategy’.

1483. This Committee has many complex threads across all of the policies regarding children and young people. However, it is important to note that although you may not have control of, or input into, a lot of those policies, the reality is that one of them could impact on some of the policies on which the Committee is working. The Committee must keep a watching brief on many of the policies that could impact on its work. A good template in that respect is the Committee’s report on its inquiry into child poverty in Northern Ireland.

1484. Item three of our submission deals with the issue of children and young people, which certainly falls within the remit of this Committee. We know that there are areas of European policy that have either a direct or indirect effect on children. For example, I mentioned the Council of Europe’s strategy entitled ‘Building a Europe for and with children — 2009-2011 strategy’.

1485. It is important to note that the UK is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. When the Assembly created the post of Commissioner for Children and Young People, the legislation stated that the holder of that post must have regard for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Therefore, it is important that the strategy from Europe will promote the implementation of that UN convention across all of its member states.

1486. That particular document has three core points, which I call the “three Ps" — provision, protection and participation of young people. That is what the strategy aims to implement. The strategy will impact on policies, directives and decisions in the EU, and that will have a ripple effect on our 10-year strategy for children and young people. The Committee may need to keep an eye on that.

1487. Something that may be of interest to the Committee is that there is an EU forum on the rights of children, on which the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children has a place. It may be worthwhile for Committee officials to keep a monitoring brief on the work of that forum in the future, as that may help the Committee in its work.

1488. Finally, although responsibility for many policy areas falls across the remit of all Departments, the fact is that OFMDFM and this Committee have responsibility for children’s policy and the policy coming from Europe. There needs to be an opportunity for the Committee to work with the ministerial subgroup on children and with the children’s champions so that you can get an overview of what is happening in other Departments. Some of the relevant policies relate to issues such as child protection, safeguarding children, preventing trafficking of, and violence against, children, and poverty, which is the core issue that we just discussed.

1489. It is important for us to recognise that children’s rights are reflected in the Assembly, the Executive and international agreements and ensure they are also on the agenda in Europe. We welcome all of that, and we look forward to working with the Committee on many of the issues that I have outlined.

1490. The Chairperson: Thank you very much; that was very helpful. There is a question concerning the eradication of all forms of violence against children and the recent decision by NICCY to withdraw your legal challenge in relation to that — I do not know whether that is the elephant in the room, but it is certainly topical. Do you anticipate that you will return to that issue with a European approach when looking at future legislation?

1491. Ms Lewsley: That is something that has been on the European agenda for a long time, because quite a number of countries in Europe have banned physical punishment. Although we are not pursuing the legal challenge to physical punishment to the House of Lords, that does not mean that dealing with physical punishment does not remain a priority for NICCY. We will consider other ways in which we can try to influence the Government to change their minds regarding future legislation.

1492. The Chairperson: I know that this is a slightly separate point, but I want to pursue it because it is so topical. Dealing with that issue is clearly a strategic objective in Europe, so will you refresh us as to your reasons for not pursuing the challenge? The press release led me to understand that it was a matter of money. However, if it is a matter of protecting rights, surely that should take precedence over an issue of money?

1493. Ms Lewsley: That is something that I have to manage. When we decided to request the judicial review, the organisation was in a very different financial situation. In fact, the organisation had the opportunity to carry 5% — about £95,000 — of its moneys over in one year. That money had been earmarked for the physical punishment legal campaign. We cannot take that legal challenge any more because that money has been taken away from us.

1494. As with all other organisations, we have had to make efficiency savings over last year, this year and next year, and that further cut our budget by £132,000. Weighing up our current financial situation compared with our situation when we started the campaign, I — as head of the organisation — had to decide whether it would be wise to take that challenge forward.

1495. Very often, we cannot determine the timescale for any legal course of action that we take. Therefore, although I could have decided to find the money to cover the cost in this year’s budget, I had no guarantee that the case would not roll into the next financial year. That would have meant that I would have had to surrender the money in this year and then had to try to find it in next year’s budget. I felt that that was too big a risk for the organisation to take at this stage. There are other ways of influencing a change in legislation.

1496. The Chairperson: I do not wish to flog the issue to death — which is a highly inappropriate phrase — but was there a sense that there was little enthusiasm for the campaign, if not in your organisation then certainly in the Department that oversees your work?

1497. Ms Lewsley: No; certainly not. It is important to note the number of people who supported our stance and the legal action that we have taken to date. When I have been out and about, I have met children who have told me that physical punishment is wrong. Parents and organisations supported our action. At the end of the day, it is up to me — as head of the organisation — to decide where we take such matters and make the final decision.

1498. Mr Shannon: I wish to touch upon the issue raised by the chairperson. The amount of money that you have spent pursuing the issue of child smacking concerns a great many people. The intention of that campaign seems to be to prevent parents from guiding their children. You said that you have heard people saying one thing to you, but I have heard people saying something different, which is that that campaign is trying to criminalise parents who love their children. I love my children, and my dad and mum love me, but, yet and all, chastising took place through those parenting processes.

1499. Given all the money from your budget that you have spent on that campaign, I am not quite sure what support you have had for it. That money could have been better spent on addressing the issues that have been highlighted today, such as children and solvent abuse, children and trafficking, children who are employed but who do not receive the wages that they should, children in poverty and children in education.

1500. Why spend all that money pursuing that challenge when it seems to me, as an elected representative, and to the people to whom I have spoken that it does not have the support of the community? You said that you make the decisions; I hope that it is not a personal campaign.

1501. Ms Lewsley: The intention of taking the case was never to criminalise parents.

1502. Mr Shannon: That is a personal opinion.

1503. Ms Lewsley: The case was not about criminalising parents; it was about protecting children and supporting parents by showing them other ways of disciplining their children. I, too, love my children, but I did not feel the need to hit them to discipline them. There is a huge amount of support for the action that we have taken so far, and some people are disappointed that we have not taken it further, but that is the decision that I have made.

1504. It is very important that I put that issue in the context of all the work that I do as the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People. My budget is £1·8 million a year and, in a three-year period, we have spent — [Mobile phone interference].

1505. The Chairperson: I think that there is someone selling ice cream.

1506. Ms Lewsley: Over a three-year period, we spent roughly £120,000 of the £1·8 million annual budget, which amounts to £40,000 a year.

1507. It is also important to let the Committee know that we were working on other things, including those issues that were just touched on, at the same time that we were working on the legal challenge. Between April 2008 and the end of March 2009, we dealt with 700 individual cases concerning many of the issues that you mentioned, among others. The organisation works on behalf of children in relation to all those issues, while also looking at issues regarding the legislation that needs to be put in place to protect children. We did not spend three years working only on the issue of physical punishment. In the last number of years, the majority of our time and money was spent working on various issues across the board.

1508. Mr Shannon: I am glad that you are spending a lot of your time and effort on the issues that I outlined and that we agree on the importance of those. However, you must accept that a great many parents who love their children felt criminalised by the legal challenge. Do not, for one second, take away from the fact that a lot of parents were concerned about the campaign, which they felt was a personal attack on them.

1509. Ms Lewsley: I accept that; people have a right to their opinion. However, I wish to make it clear that it was never my intention to criminalise any parent.

1510. Mr Shannon: The money that was spent on the challenge would have been much better spent on dealing with the issues that we have outlined.

1511. What contacts do you have in Europe? What European contacts would it be beneficial for us to have in addressing the issues that we touched on, such as child trafficking, children in employment and children in poverty? Different countries have different regulations, and I am keen to know how we can agree a campaign on which everyone can move forward together. Those are the issues that I want you to address and that I believe NICCY is also committed to. How can a European inquiry strengthen our work on those issues and help us to move forward?

1512. Ms Lewsley: The Committee needs to scrutinise the EU directives and have its voice heard at as early a stage as possible during the drafting of those directives. That could be done by working with Northern Ireland’s MEPs, through direct engagement with those involved in formulating the EU directives, or through help and support from the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland.

1513. Mrs D Kelly: I welcome Patricia and Gerry to the Committee. Given that the junior Ministers are the designated children’s champions, have they been in contact with you regarding the physical punishment legal challenge?

1514. Ms Lewsley: No.

1515. Mrs D Kelly: You informed us of the Stockholm strategy and urged the Committee to have a role in its implementation. What role do you have in influencing and tailoring strategies for the benefit of Northern Ireland? What submissions have you been able to make?

1516. Ms Lewsley: We have an input through our representative in the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children. For example, the secretariat that we now have circulated a questionnaire on the impact that divorce has on children.

1517. It is not only the Stockholm strategy that will have an impact on that in Northern Ireland — the other big thing is the Lisbon Treaty. We feed our initial input through the ENOC group, but the office also engages with the three MEPs.

1518. Mrs D Kelly: Are you satisfied that that is having an impact and that you are able to influence policy?

1519. Ms Lewsley: Europe is huge and very bureaucratic, and sometimes it is very difficult. However, the important thing is that we keep trying to influence policy at as high a level as possible.

1520. The Chairperson: If the Enoch that I remember knew that his name was being so closely attached to European issues, he would be turning in his grave. [Laughter.]

1521. Ms Anderson: You mentioned a directive on anti-discrimination and equal treatment. I do not know whether that is only being developed in Europe at the moment, because when you talked about early intervention you said that you are concerned that children will not be reflected in the directive on discrimination that is coming through Europe. Will it be through the ENOC group that you will try to ensure that the needs of children are reflected in that directive? Given that there is no single equality Bill here and that there is an array of legislation that has yet to be harmonised, what impact will the European directive have?

1522. Ms Lewsley: It will depend on the outcome of that piece of work. The European Commission is working through the directive on anti-discrimination and equal treatment, which it is still in its early stages. Depending on what comes out of that, there will be an impact on what the Assembly will be able to put into the single equality Bill. It might change some of the issues that are dealt with in that Bill, and it may or may not strengthen it. At that stage, it is important to look at those policies that will impact on some of the policies and legislation that we are currently trying to put through the Assembly.

1523. Mr Elliott: Working on the assumption that the area of European issues in which you have most interest is that of legislation, will you tell me whether you have a mechanism in place that allows you to scrutinise any new legislation or directives at an early stage? Obviously, one of the areas that we are looking at is how we can best affect new legislation and regulations that are coming forward. You said it yourself, Patricia: you need to be in at an early stage to do that.

1524. Ms Lewsley: That is why we set up the secretariat in Strasbourg, which is close to the Parliament. That will look at all the legislation coming out of the three bodies that I mentioned at the beginning of the meeting. It will look at legislation or directives at an early stage and if we have the opportunity to provide input during the consultation period for those, the network will be collectively asked. That response will be fed in.

1525. Mrs Long: You are very welcome to the Committee. In your submission, you noted the cross-cutting nature of some of the policy work being done in Europe, the fact that more than one Department will be responsible for the scrutiny of that, and the difficulties involved in doing that. Clearly, you have the advantage among the people giving us evidence of having sat on this side of the table. Therefore, you understand something of how the Committee structures function in practice. Given that, is there anything specific that you think that the Assembly could do to improve its ability to scrutinise cross-cutting legislation and ensure that each Department is taking on its role and remit in monitoring that, particularly in relation to European issues, as that is one of the questions that we have been wrestling with?

1526. Ms Lewsley: You need to identify which Departments will be responsible for what and, as a Committee, you need to ask those Departments what they are doing and then try to collate that information. There is an opportunity to do that through the ministerial subgroup and through the children’s champions in each Department. We had hoped that the children’s champions would do that cross-cutting, cross-departmental work. There needs to be some sort of accountability at the end of the year to prove that they have been doing that, and that it is not a tick-box exercise.

1527. The ministerial subgroup has set out six priorities. It is disappointing for us that the core priority is poverty, yet that subgroup has met just once in seven months. It is OK to say that we have policies for this and that, and it is true that we have the policies and the legislation; however, the important thing now is to implement those policies. We need more scrutiny and accountability in relation to that.

1528. Mrs Long: My second question is about the comments that you have made on access to justice and vulnerable young people. What specific role does the EU and associated bodies have with regard to protecting children from trafficking? How do you link with that work?

1529. Ms Lewsley: A couple of different forums have been set up in Northern Ireland. We facilitated a round-table discussion not so long ago on the issues facing Roma children. The first thing that we were able to identify was that there was no trafficking of children. The number of children that are being trafficked in Northern Ireland is minimal compared with other countries. We will be able to learn about those issues from the cross-body forum that has been established. We have also been to Scotland and other places to see what is happening in their detention centres. We are learning the process at the moment so that if it does happen, we will have some evidence and we will know where to go for help.

1530. The Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation and for the clarity of your answers. If you have any further information for our inquiry we will be happy to receive it. We may well seek further clarification on aspects that we are interested in. Thank you.

22 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:

Mr David Guilfoyle
Ms Bernice Sweeney
Mr Stephen Hughes
Ms Corinna Thompson

Youth Council for Northern Ireland

1531. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): The second evidence session is with the Youth Council for Northern Ireland. I welcome Mr David Guilfoyle, Ms Bernice Sweeney, Mr Stephen Hughes and Ms Corinna Thompson. Good afternoon, and thank you for your written submission. I invite you to give the Committee a brief overview, after which there will be an opportunity for members to ask questions.

1532. Mr David Guilfoyle (Youth Council for Northern Ireland): On behalf of the Youth Council for Northern Ireland, I thank the Committee for the opportunity to come here today. In our written submission, we said that we thought that it was important for the Committee to hear directly from youth workers and young people. Therefore, in addition to my colleague Bernice Sweeney, who is the Youth Council’s international officer, we are delighted to be joined by Corinna Thompson, a young person who is involved in programmes that are run by the statutory youth service sector, and Stephen Hughes, who is involved in the voluntary youth service sector. Each of my colleagues will give an overview of their own perspectives on the issues. We will be happy to expand on those during the question and answer session, by giving examples and citing case studies that the Committee might find helpful.

1533. Ms Bernice Sweeney (Youth Council for Northern Ireland): Good afternoon. We welcome this opportunity to address the Committee, and we thank you for responding to our offer to hear directly from youth workers and young people about the barriers, benefits, impact and necessities associated with incorporating a cross-cutting international dimension into the non-formal education sector.

1534. The Youth Council for Northern Ireland believes that the European Union brings opportunities and challenges that we must actively promote and grasp. However, those opportunities must be open to all, including those from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds. EU membership impacts on all of us — young and old, skilled and unskilled — and everyone should have the opportunity to understand and influence the development of Northern Ireland’s role as a European region.

1535. We need to ensure that young people in Northern Ireland have a voice and that they are consulted about, and benefit fully from, the advantages that membership of the European Union brings. The Youth Council hopes that greater consideration and commitment will be given to European issues, particularly in the education and skills sector and in the newly emerging education and skills authority. We also hope that the impetus and motivation required for finally developing an international strategy for education in Northern Ireland will emerge.

1536. The Youth Council is encouraged by the Department of Education’s commitment under theme 4 of the Executive’s ‘Priorities for European Engagement’ action plan. In addition, the Department’s commitment to promoting European programmes and assisting relevant departmental staff to develop a better understanding of the programmes in order to help maximise the benefits for young people and the workforce is encouraging.

1537. We hope that the Department of Education will ensure that its Priorities for Youth — which will form the basis for a new strategy for the youth service in Northern Ireland — will reflect the need to support its commitment in the ‘Priorities for European Engagement’ action plan to encourage and support greater engagement by young people and youth workers in relevant European programmes.

1538. The Youth Council believes that the importance of the European Union to Northern Ireland cannot be overemphasised and that the impact of the European Union on our lives — in political, social, economic and cultural terms — is ever increasing. As such, individual departmental business plans and strategies should reflect that. Although we understand the need to concentrate on the areas of EU policy that are deemed to be of greatest economic importance to Northern Ireland, we feel strongly that the European dimension of formal and non-formal education has been overlooked and should be given greater priority.

1539. The youth sector can, and must, influence and contribute more to EU policy and legislation. However, we must be more open to sharing our experiences, meeting our responsibilities, and maximising and recognising the benefits of membership for all young people through formal and non-formal education routes.

1540. The European Youth in Action programme, which the Youth Council co-ordinates in the region, is open to all young people aged 13 to 30 — particularly those from marginalised backgrounds — youth workers and organisations in the non-formal education sector. The programme supports initiatives across four priority areas; European citizenship, the participation of young people, cultural diversity and inclusion.

1541. Ironically, those priority areas complement and mirror the key priority areas in the existing youth work strategy for Northern Ireland. Providing opportunities for the exchange of policy and best practice, as well as for the development of language skills and knowledge about the breadth of cultural diversity across Europe, is important in preparing future generations to participate fully in the European Union.

1542. The Youth in Action programme enables young people to become more aware of their contribution to the effective functioning of democratic society in local, national, European and global contexts. Learning institutions need to be encouraged to adopt an outward and forward-looking approach and to promote the benefits of European Union education and training programmes, such as the European Youth in Action programme.

1543. Relationships with our peers across Europe are not built overnight. Increasing cultural awareness; challenging stereotypes; changing perceptions, and building racial tolerance cannot always be learnt or experienced in a classroom. When we speak of exchanging experience and practice, it should not be perceived as a one-way process in which we only expect to learn from others. There is much good work that others here could benefit from, but, all too often, it has not received the attention or recognition it deserved, as a result of being overshadowed by other priorities.

1544. The Youth Council believes that raising the awareness of children and young people about European issues, through education, should be given higher priority. We believe that greater recognition should be given to what has been achieved already within the non-formal education sector with respect to developing skills and greater intercultural awareness outside the classroom.

1545. Finally, the Youth Council believes that the long-term benefits we will gain, as a region, by investing in today’s youth will depend on how actively we prepare young people for the challenges ahead, as regards developing a mindset, skills and awareness of being able to live peacefully and work in an increasingly global, multicultural and competitive economy. It is imperative that we create a dynamic, forward-looking workforce of skilled and unskilled workers that is open, and keen, to actively engage in, and create, strategic alliances and partnerships with other regions and member states of the European Union.

1546. Ms Corinna Thompson (Youth Council for Northern Ireland): I am Corinna. I am 18 years old, and I am a kind of been there, done that, person.

1547. I got involved in an international exchange programme; an opportunity that arose from the youth work that I participate in. I was asked if I wanted to go, and the fact that I was asked made me more enthusiastic to participate as it was something that I chose to do rather than being forced into doing it.

1548. As part of the programme, you become involved in organising the programme — and that offers so much more. You want to reap the benefits of it because you have been actively involved in it. The programme involves a great deal of preparation, and in the programme that I took part in, we met for up to a year beforehand. Furthermore, although the project itself was only two weeks long, we had to undertake six months of preparation; the benefits of which can only last a lifetime.

1549. I feel that the programme has been really important as it has enabled me to gain social and cultural capital in a way that would not have been possible had I not participated. I am from a lower-income background and I do not have the money to fly halfway across the world to meet other people and experience other cultures. Therefore, being part of the programme has really opened up the world for me and has enabled me to gain that social and cultural capital.

1550. International exchange is unique. For example, at school as part my year 10 study in the national curriculum — four years ago — I was taught about world religions. One of those religions was Judaism, and I learnt about Passover. The international exchange programme that I was on took me to Israel and I was able to actually celebrate Passover. Had I not had the opportunity to do that, I would not have been able to tell you a thing about it. However, the fact that I did — that I was there and participated in it — means that I am never going to forget it.

1551. That is why I feel that the programme is so important. It gives you the real sense of culture that you cannot lift from a text book, and it has enabled me to see that there is a world outside Northern Ireland. I can now see beyond the confines of Northern Ireland and look towards Europe. Also, I feel much more part of the global community than I did before. For example, I was aware of what was occurring in Gaza, but now I know what is happening there, because I have met people from there. When I hear Gaza being talked about on the news — that is my friend’s country they are talking about: it is like local news to me now.

1552. The programme has also enabled me to see that there is a European job market that I can jump straight into. I have gained skills that will enable me to demonstrate to an employer that I can work in a foreign country and can embrace and, more importantly, respect that country’s culture.

1553. The programme involves healthy challenges that improve your courage and determination. Those challenges can range from simple hiccups in languages to extreme differences in social and cultural norms. As a result of my involvement in the programme I have learnt how to bargain, listen, compromise and understand. Furthermore, I can bring those qualities to an employer and, rather than saying that I have those qualities, I can demonstrate that I have actively used them, because I have participated in a programme that made me use those skills.

1554. The experiences of living abroad, being thrown in at the deep end, and gaining those skills have made me enthusiastic to do it all over again. If I were lucky enough to be offered a placement, or job abroad, I would jump at the opportunity rather than being hesitant. I have learnt how to embrace the culture and instead of being cautious about what adaptations I might need to make to move to another country I am now willing to do that, because I have experienced the global community. To put that in context, I am moving to Birmingham this September to study law, and I really feel that I am equipped with the tools to move to that very multicultural city. I also feel that I can actively participate in Europe, whether I move away from Northern Ireland to work, or stay here and liaise with other people from other countries.

1555. Overall, the international exchange programme has challenged me as a person. It has made me a much more rounded citizen and has pushed me to develop myself as an individual. It has also developed me personally and professionally.

1556. Mr Stephen Hughes (Youth Council for Northern Ireland): I am a youth work practitioner and I want to share some of my experiences with the Committee. We deliver several programmes within the European Youth in Action programme. Under the youth and democracy element of the programme, we run a programme called Youth in Politics.

1557. In 2009, we will have thematic exchanges with Germany, Belgium and Sweden. We have also run several youth initiatives, which are opportunities for groups of young people, aged between 15 and 30, to deliver on a local or international issue. It is a participatory learning experience whereby young people get to control a whole project. It is a practical living and learning experience.

1558. We have also availed of the professional-development element of the Youth in Action programme, whereby we swap interns, volunteers or staff across nations in order to gain different understandings, skills and practices in what we do, which is to intervene in young people’s lives.

1559. Our motivation is mainly about increasing participation in education. We provide an education-based programme, which aims to increase opportunities for employment initiatives, youth development and policy development, and secure the interests of young people in Northern Ireland. It also increases the skills base of participants by equipping young people, staff and volunteers with more politically, and civically responsible, citizenship thinking. It gives young people and staff the opportunity to think about their roles in society and how they can give something back.

1560. We are also giving young people a better knowledge and understanding of international and multicultural issues and developing their understanding of cultural diversity. It is also about keeping our services and staff at the highest standards. We believe that although we can import certain skills, we can export others. We have great experiences in peace-building and conflict resolution that we now share with other countries. We have sent youth workers to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus and elsewhere to share what we have learnt in Northern Ireland.

1561. The benefits are that we now have more inclusive practice; better understanding of multiculturalism; changing perceptions; knowledge; dispelling of myths, and increasing racial tolerance. We are promoting Northern Ireland as somewhere to visit as a tourist destination and as a place where people can come to and learn new skills. We are creating more employable, creative and enterprising young people, who are more civically responsible and enhanced citizens. We complement formal education and embed lifelong learning as something that is not to be feared, but enjoyed, embraced, and with which to have fun.

1562. We aspire for young people to have a better quality of life and we teach them to aspire for themselves. However, there are barriers. A number of serious barriers prevent increased participation of young people in international work. I can elaborate on that if you wish. Our staff are motivated, and finances are available to make progress happen. However, certain barriers prevent that progress.

1563. I have faith that Members will incorporate these policies and services into the ESA and that international work will remain part of education; that Members will also explore staff’s, especially youth workers’, terms and conditions, so that those can be changed in order to enable staff to lead new international experiences for young people; and that that work remains a priority for education, employment and skills development.

1564. Finally, a young person from west Belfast, who went on a Swedish exchange recently, said that the physical distance in being so far away from Belfast gave them the emotional distance to look at what was happening in their life and in the life of their community through other people’s eyes. It was like seeing the situation for the first time.

1565. The Chairperson: Thank you, Stephen, and thank you all for your presentations. I now invite members to ask questions. I will start. I welcome Corinna’s enthusiasm and compliment her on it. She emphasised networking and the ability to travel and experience Europe and other parts of the world. Clearly, that is important. First, how can that be built upon and extended beyond a few young people, as appears to be the case at present, to many?

1566. Secondly, although it is great to travel to different places, it is important to come home and share that experience and enthusiasm. Do you have any ideas on those issues?

1567. Ms Thompson: You asked about coming home and sharing experiences. It can be as simple as a young person sitting down and talking to their family. When I watch the news now, I can understand the situations and I can relay that understanding to my family. I can now critically analyse the ongoing conflict. My exchange was based around conflict and diversity, not division. I can now talk to my friends about the situation and relate it to my own culture. Rather than learn about the culture in Israel or the Basque region, I can now reflect on what they have had to endure, and relate that to the conflict here. All networking involves talking to people and, perhaps, giving speeches. I have spoken to my school assembly about my experiences. Simple networking activities go a long way.

1568. You also asked how we can extend the programmes to more people. I am, perhaps, twisting the question slightly, but one barrier that I know of is that you have to be a language student to be eligible for school exchanges. Therefore, the fact that international exchanges are open to anyone — not only those who are in school — suggests that we are reaching out to many people. It is all about advertising at the lowest levels, through youth clubs, where most young people in a community will congregate. We need to spread that message.

1569. The Chairperson: How does the Youth Council intend to expand upon and extend that project in a strategic way?

1570. Ms Sweeney: We conducted a survey across Northern Ireland recently among groups that have taken part in the Youth in Action programmes in the past few years to examine the impact and uptake of the programme. Evaluation is a key part of any exchange or youth initiative. Groups are required to evaluate the young people’s progress and skills acquisition at the end of an activity. Moreover, we have asked groups what longer-term benefits they have experienced. As Corinna said, some of those benefits are life-changing and could not have been obtained if those young people had not had the opportunity to make such trips.

1571. It is also about hosting groups in Northern Ireland, and — with a different hat on — explaining to young people from other countries what life is like here. The young people must examine the political situation here and explain it to their peers in simple terms. We have a north/south/east/west programme — which is not Youth in Action — for which we conducted a longitudinal study of the impact on young people who have taken part in the programme, through which they were tagged over a series of years. We would love to do that with the Youth in Action programme. However, there are financial implications.

1572. The Chairperson: The Deputy Chairperson, Naomi Long, is next on the list to ask a question. I ask her to assume the Chair for a short time. I have been called out, but no discourtesy is intended.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs Long) in the Chair.

1573. The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs Long): Thank you for your presentation. Corinna said that she had gained the ability to bargain, listen, compromise and understand. We should, perhaps, organise an international exchange for some of our own Members.

1574. You mentioned specific opportunities in which we have not fully exploited our role in Europe to the maximum benefit of young people. Will you outline specific examples? What do you consider to be the main barriers to absolute participation and co-operation? What measures could be taken to ensure that facilitation happens, in order to allow us to obtain maximum benefit and make maximum contribution?

1575. Mr Hughes: A report and survey completed by the Youth Council this year highlighted several barriers to young people participating in the Youth in Action programme. Some of those included a lack of knowledge about the programme. One difficulty is that it tends to be targeted at language students in schools and, in the non-formal education sector, through youth services in the Youth Council. It needs to be much broader than that, and we need to share that information and knowledge with more people.

1576. There is a difficulty around human resources and a youth worker’s ability to lead groups. There is a difficulty with terms and conditions around the joint negotiating council: some education and library boards adopt it and some do not. The terms and conditions of employment restrict the ability of a youth worker to lead international work, and that issue must be addressed.

1577. There are also myths to dispel. Managers and manageresses see it as a junket and as a number of young people going away for a hoo-ha in France, Germany or wherever. It is much more than that.

1578. I will share the experiences of a recent case study carried out on a young person we work with. Conor was 14 years of age when he became involved in international work. He comes from a single-parent household and had limited educational attainment. His family is socially excluded and his single-parent mother is caught in a benefit trap. His first participation in the Youth in Action programme was an exchange with Germany focusing on bringing down the walls, which looked at intolerance in society.

1579. It was a comparison between Northern Ireland and racial inequality in Germany. He has since gone on to take part in a Youth Initiatives project and is taking part in a Swedish exchange this year. This month, he has taken up employment with Public Achievement: he has a conditional offer from the University of Ulster at Jordanstown; he is leading 40 young people to Bonn this month and is hosting a further 25 young people in Dublin from London. This is all from a young person who now has a beautiful set of tools, but who lives in what is the most socially and economically deprived community in the country.

1580. There is potential if the barriers are lifted, and there is evidence that proves that this can be a really effective and successful intervention for young people. It can cover all abilities and all opportunities. The difficulty is that some subtle changes are needed and that those are embedded in future policy and procedure.

1581. Ms Sweeney: Of all the barriers that exist, one of the key barriers — across the board — is the fact that there is a lack of recognition of the value of participation in international work by young people, youth workers and organisations. Until that is addressed, it makes it very difficult for that type of work to receive any kind of priority status or understanding. For that reason, we are hopeful that it will become more integrated and understood within the new education and skills authority. It makes it difficult for us to promote the programme at times, despite our intentions to do so across the Province, because if managers are being blocked higher up the ranks, then it is almost a futile task. We try hard to promote our activities.

1582. The youth workers and young people with whom we come into contact are very keen and eager to take part, but the blockages appear when it comes to looking for time off from the youth centre. When teachers leave their schools they are covered by substitute teachers, but that facility does not exist in the non-formal education sector. One key barrier is the lack of recognition of the value of the impact and benefits which, for many young people, are life changing. One strand of the programme is all about young people, as individuals, taking part in European voluntary service. It targets specifically marginalised young people, many of whom have had no employment or opportunities in the past, nor have they opportunities for the future.

1583. Those young people, some of whom have been homeless in the past, have been able to obtain placements in organisations that meet their needs, and, at the end of one year, have a wonderful tool in front of them — a CV. They have gained significant skills, a new language, and a new opportunity for the future. That is life changing. However, the value and recognition of that is often lost. Partly, that is because, over the past couple of years, there has been turmoil within the sector due to the emergence of the education and skills authority and the delay of that coming into being. Other areas have been prioritised over international work, and yet the key aspects of what we are driving home through this programme — citizenship, social inclusion, cultural diversity — are key issues within youth services.

1584. Mr Shannon: Thank you for your presentation. Your submission refers to both formal and non-formal education, and states that Northern Ireland must not be passive within the EU. When we were in Europe, one thing that they were keen to ensure continued and, indeed, be enhanced, was the exchanges that Corinna mentioned. Personally, I do not think that there is a lack of enthusiasm, keenness or energy in relation to that. Will you tell me exactly what you mean by formal and non-formal education? I presume that that is not only to do with international exchanges. Perhaps you will give us some idea of what you see as the difference between those definitions, and how you see those sectors being enhanced and strengthened.

1585. Ms Sweeney: The opportunities provided through the Youth in Action programme, in particular, extend far beyond youth exchange activities. They include job shadowing opportunities for youth workers and organisations, sharing of best practice, European voluntary service, and opportunities to liaise at policy and organisational levels. That programme is specifically targeted at the non-formal education sector. It complements other programmes, such as Comenius and Leonardo, which target the vocational-training sector and the formal education sector. The passivity that we refer to is not among youth workers or young people. It is among those at a higher level with the power to give greater priority to this area and who are, perhaps, choosing not to do so.

1586. We are organising a study visit to Brussels next month in which two representatives from the Department of Education, one representative from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and colleagues from the youth-service sector will be taking part. The aim is to not just to learn more about that particular programme, but to see how other countries work with their young people in trying to roll-out greater levels of participation. We want to ensure that young people gain a greater sense of their European identity and of where they fit within the map of Europe. Before we can do that, they need to learn about their own identity and their own democratic processes and procedures. The programme allows young people to do that, and to use that knowledge as a stepping stone to becoming more fully aware at a European level.

1587. Mr Shannon: Do you feel that the system is in place but that a commitment at higher levels has not been given?

1588. Ms Sweeney: Yes, the funding is there. We are delighted to see that in the ‘Priorities for European Engagement’, the Department of Education is committed to delivering in certain areas, and that is a first step. There is no international strategy for education in Northern Ireland — although it has been referred to and tinkered with on many occasions in the past, it still does not exist.

1589. Mr Guilfoyle: In answer to Mr Shannon’s question, we are not saying that our colleagues are not interested. In fact, our colleagues — in common with many people in the public sector — are very heavily involved in the aftermath of the review of public administration, and there are many things happening in that area. We are trying to say that in the midst of all the changes, which affect my own organisation, we should not lose sight of the importance of this particular area of work. It would be very easy for it to be forgotten about. However, it has many wider benefits, such as those that Corinna and Stephen referred to. We are pleased that our Department is taking this seriously. There is great potential for this to figure within the new Priorities for Youth, and we want to make sure that we do not take our eye off the ball at this very important time.

1590. Mr Hughes: The workers are keen to develop that further. There is great scope for that to be a much bigger element of education provision. The finances required to make that happen are in the European Community, but some tinkering is required to enable the staff to make that happen. The staff are restricted by the terms and conditions that exist. The matter is very economically driven. The issue is about paying staff — that could be done by providing the enhanced payments that are required for overnight residential work or by giving them time off in lieu. A small amount of money in that funding stream would enable us to lever so much more out of the Youth in Action programme.

1591. Ms Anderson: You mentioned the Department of Education’s priority for European engagement. The Department has worked with the Youth Council and Youth First to assist it with its draft policy submissions for the EU common objectives on youth. One can see that commitment reflected in its action plan for 2008-2010, in which it set out its commitment to recognising, encouraging and supporting the use of European youth programmes. I am trying to tease out your concern about the ESA. Are you receiving any feedback that that commitment may not be reflected in the ESA, or are you just flagging that up as something that you want to see reflected in the ESA?

1592. Are there other Departments that you would like to follow the model that is being presented by the Education Department in relation to its commitments, action plan and the work that it is doing with your organisation? Primarily, I am thinking about the Department for Employment and Learning and other Departments that assist young people.

1593. Corinna, your enthusiasm came across clearly in your presentation; it was almost palpable. It is great that you have had that experience. Obviously, you have to broaden your horizons but, without wanting to hold you back, we need people like you to stay here in the North — I would hate for us to lose you.

1594. Mr Guilfoyle: The fact that two of our colleagues from the youth service branch of the Department of Education are here today indicates the strong interest that that branch has. We and our colleagues in the statutory and voluntary youth service sector work very closely with it in trying to bring the issue to the fore. Now that times have changed, it is very difficult to keep all the balls in the air, which is why we are saying that although it is a relatively small area of work, its importance far exceeds the amount of money that is involved.

1595. As a number of Members pointed out, substantial amounts of money are available, which is why my colleague Bernice Sweeney and others ran a training course last week in Belfast for 20 people — many of whom were from Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland — to make them aware of the opportunities that exist. That is one dimension of our work.

1596. The education and skills authority will present tremendous opportunities for closer working between formal and non-formal education. That work is yet to be addressed. In our submissions to the Department of Education regarding the education and skills authority we are flagging up a lot of issues, of which that is one.

1597. The other issue to which you very wisely referred was that of other Departments. Over the years, the Youth Council has had a very close working relationship with the children and young people’s unit in OFMDFM. For example, a number of years ago we worked on developing common objectives with that unit. That is important because the 10-year strategy for children and young people is cross-cutting — it captures every Department. Many of the benefits to which Corrinna and Stephen referred impact on not only OFMDFM, they impact on the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and so forth.

1598. Wearing another hat of mine, the Youth Council in conjunction with other Departments has — touch wood — today submitted a bid for Peace III funding. That bid would involve us with the Department for Employment and Learning in the North and FÁS in the South. Looking at the wider picture, we must educate young people about the benefits that accrue for them. We in the Youth Service — both youth workers and young people — feel that we can contribute a lot to that wider picture.

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy) in the Chair.

1599. Mr Elliott: Thank you for the presentation. I know that the particular project on which you have focused today deals with people aged between 13 and 30. What is the normal age range with which the Youth Council deals?

1600. Mr Guilfoyle: The official youth service age range that the Department of Education recognises is from four to 25 years of age. The upper limit that Europe tends to use is 25 years of age. However, as is quite rightly pointed out in the documentation, that extends up to 30 years of age for certain EU-funded programmes. I will let Bernice pick up on the story from this point.

1601. Ms Sweeney: Young people, including young leaders, aged from 13 to 30 can take part in the programme. There is no age limit for youth workers or those who represent organisations, so people from across the age spectrum can take part. Specifically, young people up to the age of 30 can take part in order to allow young leaders to move forward and progress through the programme.

1602. Mr Elliott: My main question relates to the one that Jim Shannon asked. In your presentation, you said that the Youth Council feels strongly that education, both formal and non-formal, has been overlooked as regards its European dimensions. That is a fairly bold and deliberate statement. Can you expand on that? I know that you went into a bit of detail, Bernice, but will you explain why is that work not happening on the ground, and what can be done to address that? Stephen mentioned one or two issues about tinkering with things to make that happen.

1603. Mr Guilfoyle: I will give the historical background to that issue. For a number of years, the Youth Council has advocated the recognition of international work in the Department’s education policy. There is great sympathy for that being the case. However, due to other big issues affecting the education sector, the issue of international work has not had the chance to be addressed in the way in which it could have been.

1604. Particularly given the interest of the Committee and the Department, we hope that there will be an opportunity to rewrite a policy and strategy for international work. Such a strategy will provide international work with a broad direction and a higher profile, meaning that everyone will feel that it is an important of area of work. In practice, part of that will involve providing information and training people. Stephen might want to comment on that aspect.

1605. Mr Hughes: As regards policy and practice, there are some simple things in which we need to participate and that we need to influence. There is a number of conferences, training courses and events that take place across Europe that we need to be seen participating in. We also want to influence the various policies that exist to ensure that we have embedded the best interests of young people into them.

1606. It is OK for me, as someone from the voluntary sector, to attend those events, but is difficult for staff in the statutory sector. They cannot jump on a plane to attend a conference somewhere in Europe, even though the cost of doing so is usually paid fully for them. It does not have a cost for us because it tends to be paid for through the Youth in Action programme.

1607. It is difficult for workers who have been away, because they do not get time off in lieu to spend with their families when they return. We have a group heading off to Germany in the summer for two weeks. Some of the group members are married but, when they come home, they will not be entitled to two weeks off or enhanced payments for the time they are away. That is insensitive. Sometimes, it is quite difficult for people if they are not given recognition or time off to help and support their families when they come back. Providing time off in lieu or enhanced payments is a simple and practical step that can be taken to recognise the work that people do.

1608. Ms Sweeney: It is sad that, nowadays, it is almost possible for a young person to go through school without having been required to learn, or become proficient in, a foreign language. Young people can leave school with little understanding of what it is really like to interface and engage with a young person from another culture.

1609. Through this programme, we are not simply targeting high-flyers or language students. We are targeting every young person who has the opportunity to take part in this programme. The programme is important for young people, such as those who leave school at the age of 16, because it will equip them with the skills to deal in a respectful manner with their peers from other cultures and other countries whom they are likely to meet in a work setting.

1610. Sadly, young people in Northern Ireland can be a bit isolated in that respect, unlike young people from Belgium, France or any of the other countries where young people have constant exposure to people from other countries and cultures.

1611. Mr Hughes: An experience that youth workers often report is the lack of social and life skills that our young people bring to the exchange programmes. When we engage with some of our European partners, our young people tend to look, not unprepared, but perhaps not as able as their European counterparts. I am here today to try to convey that to the Committee.

1612. The Youth in Action programme is a very intensive piece of youth work. It is 24 hours a day, and it tends to be held over a week or two weeks in an environment that can often be quite difficult, although we try to prepare our young people for that. I will share some of our experiences with the Committee.

1613. When we took our group to Germany, they were in bed for 10.00 pm or 10.30 pm at the latest. Our young people thought that that was quite strange because normally they go to bed at 12.30 am or 1.00 am, but in Germany they had to get up at 6.00 am. When they went to McDonalds, they had access to beer, and the youth centre that we stayed in had beer on tap. Those are examples of the cultural and social differences that we have to overcome.

1614. Our young people reap massive benefits from the Youth in Action programme very quickly, and those benefits have long-term impacts. It is genuinely possible to see a significant change in a young person who has been away to an international conference or who has been on an exchange programme.

1615. Ms Thompson: To back up what Mr Hughes has said, that is what I feel that a lot of people do not understand about international relations. If you throw yourself into a group of 12 people, it is like a ‘Big Brother’ experience: you are all living in a big house for 10 days, and you have to do everything together.

1616. The Chairperson: We have a ‘Big Brother’ experience here; there are 108 of us. [Laughter.]

1617. Ms Thompson: Some people might think that international exchange is somewhat of a holiday for the youth workers and the young people, but we had a lot of heavy sessions. We had a session that was a flag workshop where we had —

1618. Mrs D Kelly: I have done a few of those. [Laughter.]

1619. Ms Thompson: We had to sit down and really think about what we thought about ourselves, and it was really heavy. Stephen has mentioned that youth workers do not get time off in lieu and people might think that they are getting a paid holiday, but it is really hard. You are running around for 24 hours a day; it is really intensive. It is loads of fun, it is brilliant, but emotionally, it is not torture, but it is quite emotionally heavy a lot of the time.

1620. The Chairperson: It is draining.

1621. Ms Thompson: Yes; just having to look at yourself critically and think, am I am alright here? It is really hard, so it is important to recognise that. I have just explained it in the craziest way.

1622. The Chairperson: We did warn you that you are being recorded by Hansard; that report is going to read very well. [Laughter.]

1623. Ms Sweeney: A key thing to note is that the young people who take part in this particular programme opt into it. They are not forced into it; they volunteer for the programme. It is not part of a requirement through school where they have to tick a box; they do it because they enjoy it.

1624. Mr Hughes: It is also a chance for our young people to effect change in other parts of the world. Our young people are doing voluntary service in various countries; not only in Europe, but all around the Mediterranean and Asia. They are out there effecting change in other, less fortunate people’s lives. That is a great reflection on us as well, and it is an aspect of the programme that should be celebrated.

1625. Mrs D Kelly: Thank you for your presentation. I have great admiration for people who invest their time and energy in working with our young people. A finding that we have heard from other groups that have made submissions to the Committee is the importance of networking and having a communication flow. Some of those submissions were from youth groups. You said that you have worked well with the children and young people’s unit in the past — is the situation the same today? Are we able to maximise all the available opportunities to improve communication that are coming out of Europe? Is the match funding to do so available?

1626. Mr Guilfoyle: I will deal with a couple of those points and then hand over to my colleague Bernice to deal with the others.

1627. The answer to your first question is yes; only this morning I was at a meeting about play and leisure policies with Nicola Drennan from the children and young people’s unit. Our links with the unit continue; indeed, Caroline Evans from the unit is going to Brussels with us.

1628. We maintain that link because we feel that it is important, given the overarching responsibility of OFMDFM to update the strategy for children and young people. We are part of a number of networks, some of which extend beyond Northern Ireland. One is ERYICA, the European Youth Information and Counselling Agency. We represent Northern Ireland on that group, and have been involved with it for 16 or 17 years. It keeps Northern Ireland in the loop as to information services across Europe. However, there are much wider networks also — I will ask Bernice to elaborate on that.

1629. Ms Sweeney: Participation in the Youth in Action programme has allowed us to establish partnerships with other organisations outside the youth work sector. For example, we work closely with Bryson House, which is heavily involved in the European Voluntary Service, as well as other organisations scattered around Northern Ireland that are now tapping into that part of the programme.

1630. The RNIB’s youth group, Eye Matter, has taken part in that programme — its members have been involved in job-shadowing schemes with young blind people from other countries. In rolling out the programme, we have established strong links with the Youth Justice Agency. There are opportunities to develop networks not only within Northern Ireland, but externally. We hope that, as part of the study visit to Brussels next month, those networks will be reinforced and expanded on.

1631. The question of how much match funding is available depends on what part of the programme one looks at. There is 100% funding available for groups under the youth initiatives programme. That is a part of the Youth in Action programme that provides for locally based projects that have an impact on their communities and that deal with issues that are perceived by young people to be of relevance to young people in other European countries. If those groups satisfy the criteria for that programme, which is easy to do, they can access up to 100% of the €10,000 budget.

1632. Similarly, 100% funding is available for job-shadowing opportunities for youth workers. We provide up to 70% of the travel costs for youth exchanges. For schemes that involve hosting incoming groups, there is a requirement to look for additional funding. We provide lower levels of funding for such schemes, but fund-raising is part of what is done by the young people who are acting as hosts. For youth democracy projects, up to €50,000, representing up to 75% of the total eligible costs of the project, may be drawn down. Significant amounts of funding are available. We do not rush projects. There is a preparatory, lead-in phase to look for additional funds, and often those can be in-kind funds.

1633. The Chairperson: That completes our questions. Thank you for your attendance, your presentations and your answers. If there is any additional information that you wish to furnish the Committee with, we will be happy to receive it. If we have any queries, we will be in contact with you to address them.

1634. Mr Guilfoyle: I thank the Committee for the opportunity to attend today, for its interest and encouragement. We trust that members recognise the wide benefits from, and impact of, our work. We welcome your support in achieving further developments in this area of work. If there is anything that we can do to help to support the Committee in this important field of work, please do not hesitate to contact us. Thank you again for your time.

1635. Mrs D Kelly: May I just ask a final question? If a youth group were to apply for the €10,000 grant, should it apply to Europe or to your office?

1636. Ms Sweeney: Processes are changing. We provide support to organisations and young people to help them with their applications. We have also put in place a system of coaching, wherein coaches can be identified to work alongside the groups and support them with their applications. Those coaches will be youth workers and, I hope, young leaders in the future.

1637. Mrs D Kelly: Thank you very much.

28 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:

Mr Michael Connarty

House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee

1638. The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs Long): Lord Roper, Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union, is unable to attend today’s meeting but has forwarded formal evidence papers to the Committee, which are tabled for members’ information.

1639. I welcome Michael Connarty to the Committee. Michael, I suggest that you start by giving a short presentation to the Committee, after which members will be free to ask questions.

1640. Mr Michael Connarty (House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee): I am very aware that the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons represents a sovereign Parliament, and its role is slightly different from the role of Committees in any of the devolved institutions, whether those are Assemblies or Parliaments. The role that we perform is probably much more intense, in the sense that many of the Committees of the devolved Assemblies or the devolved Parliament focus on a consultation process that is undertaken by Government Departments, rather than holding a Government Department or Minister directly to account in the UK sovereign Parliament, as is the case for us.

1641. I have provided to the Committee copies of the document that explains the procedures of the European Scrutiny Committee. The main tool that gives strength to the scrutiny process in the UK Parliament is the scrutiny reserve. That is a process whereby a Minister cannot agree a policy in a meeting of the European Council until we have lifted that reserve.

1642. Our reserve is based on a decision being made by the Committee that all the relevant information necessary for the Parliament and other stakeholders has been made available and has been completed to our satisfaction. That could be done in a good explanatory memorandum that gives the Commission’s proposal, the Department’s position on that proposal, and advice from our Committee Clerk, as amended by the Committee, regarding our judgement on whether that information is adequate for the Parliament to allow the Minister to make a decision, either for or against supporting that proposal in the Council.

1643. We can do that by writing to the Minister if we are not happy after we have held the scrutiny reserve, which means that the proposal is not cleared, to use our terminology. Alternatively, we can raise it with the Minister in an evidence session and interrogate him or her in some detail. We can also decide to send the proposal to one of our three Committees — they used to be called Standing Committees, but are now called European Committees — that have the right to question the Minister and debate the issue for up to two and a half hours. Any Members of Parliament can attend those Committee meetings, be involved in the questioning session and make speeches, but they cannot vote on the decision on whether the Minister’s position should be approved.

1644. When we are dealing with a very important issue, it is referred for a debate on the Floor of the House. For example, we recently had a debate about the European proposal to deal with the financial crisis, which came from the Council on 6 December 2008. Every year, we have debates on the audited accounts of the European Union and we have a debate on either the annual policy strategy document or the work programme — whichever we decide is the more important in that year.

1645. Our Committee regularly refers issues for debate on the Floor of the House. Sometimes, such referrals are for what might be called crisis debates, which are about issues of very strong importance. Those are the ways in which we try to elicit from the Government all the information that we require to assure us that all the points of contradiction and concern are in the public domain.

1646. It is not our Committee’s job to make policy; that is done by the sovereign Parliament, either through voting on resolutions in the Standing Committees or when proposals come back to the UK Parliament to be transcribed into legislation. Our job is to ensure that adequate information is available and that any contradictions are interrogated and opened up for scrutiny by the Parliament.

1647. The Deputy Chairperson: Thank you. You mentioned that your Committee scrutinises the work of the Ministers of the sovereign Parliament, but that it does not deal regularly with devolved matters. Some of the targets that are set by the European Parliament through directives, for example, are on devolved matters. How does your Committee take account of instances when the devolved legislatures have their own perspectives on particular issues or their own responsibilities to deliver against certain targets to ensure that the UK complies with European directives? How has that affected the work of your Committee?

1648. Mr Connarty: We have refined our response. I have been a member of the Committee since 1998; therefore, I have been on it since before the devolved legislatures were set up and operating. As a result of constant pressure on, correspondence with, and criticism of Departments, we now ensure that the devolved legislatures are consulted regarding all the matters for which they have a responsibility to implement legislation or to legislate on.

1649. We receive a report every week on all issues that come before us. Such issues can be of political and legal importance or, if they are not, they will simply be noted as a heading, with the papers being placed on file. The devolved legislatures now have their own column in the reports, and that will say either “consulted" or “not applicable". Therefore, Departments have to ensure that the legislatures have been consulted.

1650. The interesting fact about that process is that regardless of who is running the Administration, we never get told what was said during those consultations; we simply get told that the consultation has taken place. That was the case with the Scottish Parliament when the Labour Party was in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and it is now the case with the Scottish National Party.

1651. We have said, particularly to Members of the Scottish Parliament, that if they want to know what their Ministers said, they must ask them. The Ministers now say that though they are from a different party, they cannot reveal what was said because although there is a protocol to ensure that they are consulted, there is also a protocol that neither the UK Department or Minister nor the Scottish Department or Minister will reveal what was said in the consultation process; they will say only that they were consulted. That stance has been incorporated into a UK position that applies also when they go to the Council.

1652. Mr Elliott: You are very welcome, Michael. Thank you for your presentation. I want to find out how the UK Parliament can be of assistance to us, because I do not feel that a small, regional Assembly such as this one has the resources and capabilities to deal with issues in the way that your Committee does. I am looking for your assistance and advice on how you can help us, how we can feed into your processes, or how you can keep us better informed of what you are doing. Is there any way that you can help us to set up a two-way process that would streamline what we in the Assembly have to do?

1653. Mr Connarty: I would love to reach out and build a bridge between our resources and yours. However, I refer you to the document that was produced by the Welsh Assembly about the question of subsidiarity, which concluded that it was not the responsibility of the UK Parliament to be its conduit on any issues. That Assembly concluded that it had to be self-sustaining.

1654. We do not see ourselves as being a parliamentary consultative body that absorbs information for other bodies. I would love to say that we could be, but I do not think that we could resource that. Our Committee has quite a substantial staff, but their time is more than fully taken up with the work that that Committee generates. The reality of devolution is that the information that is available — much of which is on the Internet — must be accessed. If the issue of Europe is taken seriously, it must be resourced and a mechanism must be set up that allows issues to be responded to. Information is available very quickly through the IPEX system, and it must then be decided whether to give that information priority so that something is done with it.

1655. I do not think that it would be possible, in relation to resources, for us to absorb all the views of other Committees or to become the supplier of what we thought was relevant information to the devolved legislatures. I would love to be able to build a great intranet of parliamentarians in the United Kingdom, but I do not think that that is possible.

1656. Mr Elliott: I was not trying to say that the UK Parliament has to tell us everything or do everything for us; my hope is that it would, at least, tell us specifically what it is considering. My problem is that the UK is the member state that deals with Europe, rather than us as a regional Assembly doing that. We have some powers, but they are very restricted. The UK is the member state, so my expectation is that its Parliament would, at least, give us a heads up on what it may be finding —

1657. The Deputy Chairperson: Do you mean in relation to priorities, and so on?

1658. Mr Elliott: Yes; in relation to priorities.

1659. Mr Connarty: It does that anyway. If something relates to a devolved matter, the relevant UK Department is charged with consulting with all of the devolved legislatures. The UK Departments have to do that — it is part of the agreed process.

1660. From a parliamentary point of view, one could very quickly find out from our weekly remit which matters were being labelled as “consulted" or “not applicable". That would allow the devolved legislatures to quite considerably narrow down how much information is relevant to them. That option is available.

1661. I do not know whether that information can be transmitted by our Committee Clerks to yours, or whether it is a matter of your Committee Clerks seeking out that information. That matter would have to be discussed with our Committee Clerks, and they would assess it on a resource basis. However, we, as a Committee, are always pressing for more evidence, are conducting more inquiries and referring more issues for debate. There is always a pressure from the Committee. Just as they did last week, our Committee Clerks have to explain again and again that they do not have the resources to take on yet another remit.

1662. We try to send matters on to our Select Committees based on the Department or issue involved, rather than taking them on board ourselves. Our members would like us to take on certain extra issues, but we are not supplied with enough staff to do so. The Northern Ireland Assembly needs a system that involves its Committee Clerks. If you prioritise Europe, you must resource it at Government and parliamentary level. Perhaps I will say something later about that.

1663. Mr Molloy: To follow on from Tom Elliott’s question, it emerged from our visit to Westminster that the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels is contacted, but not necessarily the Assembly, and this Committee must follow up on that.

1664. What advice can you give our Committee about putting in place appropriate systems that would help it to see what issues are coming down the line from Europe? There is no point in our dealing with directives that affect us today; we need to consider directives that will affect us in five years’ time. Are there any particular approaches that the Committee could take to enable it to have an input at the appropriate time, rather than after legislation has been passed?

1665. Mr Connarty: I made notes on areas that I thought I might be asked about, and I return to the point that I made about prioritising Europe. If the Assembly were to make Europe a priority — as I believe it should — that would probably mean that it would need to identify one person as having responsibility for communicating European issues. That person could, for example, be the European rapporteur for your Committee. I do not want make a suggestion about what structures should be put in place because you know your limitations on numbers and resources; however, Europe must be someone’s raison d’être.

1666. My life revolves around being the Chairperson of the European Scrutiny Committee. I do not scrutinise Bills or sit on any other Select Committees. I read every single document that comes from the European Union. One year, that amounted to 1,600 documents, but this year, thank goodness, there have been only 900. However, that is still a heavy workload, and someone must take on that responsibility, which means asking the Assembly for the backup to enable them to do so.

1667. The House of Lords has many subcommittees. As part of the strange structure in the Lords, there is one salaried person who has the responsibility of being Chairperson of the European Union scrutiny Committee. That job is deemed so important that a paid official is appointed by the House of Lords to do it, and that person also becomes a Deputy Speaker of the House, although he or she never sits on the Woolsack.

1668. It is always assumed that the Chairperson of a Select Committee will make that role their priority. My position as Chairperson takes up about half of my week; from about 6.00 pm on a Monday night until the Committee meeting is over at 4.00 pm on a Wednesday, my focus is on European matters. I have a large staff to support me, probably much larger than could be provided by a devolved Assembly or Parliament, but it is important that you have at least some specific focus on Europe.

1669. In relation to Tom’s question, the process of sifting must be a priority. Someone has to sift through the documents to determine the key issues that are relevant to your Administration’s responsibilities. That person must then ensure that those issues are considered, given a high enough priority, and are taken forward and extrapolated. There should be some forward visioning about where, if your Administration chooses to follow the line coming from Europe, that will take you. That probably presents a greater difficulty for a smaller devolved Assembly or Parliament than for the UK Parliament, but, at the end of the day, it is important.

1670. In my Committee, we always say that there will never be another fridge mountain. If you recall, the fridge mountain problem was caused because all of the foam in fridges had to be removed. The issue came to the European Scrutiny Committee, having seemed to have passed through the Department of Trade and Industry and the Environment Committee in the blink of an eye. Ultimately, it cost the UK £40 million to export fridges to be decontaminated. If no other Committee will do it, we will ensure that no fridge mountains pass through the European Scrutiny Committee.

1671. You do not want that size of omission in any area for which you have devolved responsibility, nor do you want to miss an opportunity to do something very positive simply because you have not provided enough resources to deal with European issues. It is up to the devolved legislatures to take that message seriously and to fight for the resources that they require to do their jobs.

1672. Mr McElduff: How might this regional Assembly make best use of our three MEPs to maximise our influence in the European Union?

1673. Mr Connarty: Members of the European Parliament can become isolated — they go native. Sometimes, they go to the European Parliament and become European parliamentarians. It becomes very difficult for them to maintain a relationship with the region that they are representing. We have often said in our Committee that the loss of constituency-based MEPs in the UK was a disaster and has completely marginalised people, who have come to feel that they do not know their European representatives. In Scotland, for example, people do not feel that they know any of the seven — soon to be six — MEPs, nor do they know which of the MEPs represent them, because they are not constituency based. We went over to the European system to the great detriment of democracy.

1674. People who are involved in European politics have to understand the processes that are involved, such as the system of first readings that is coming, which will be the normal method of legislation if the Lisbon Treaty is passed. Legislation will be passed by the Council and co-decision making will be done in the European Parliament. Many decisions will be made in negotiation between the Committee of the European Parliament and the Council. Your MEPs will be vital to that because they are the people who are conscious of the Assembly’s agenda and of the needs of your area of the UK. They will argue in the first reading committee for compromises or amendments that will be to the advantage of Northern Ireland citizens. Therefore, the Assembly should help them to retain a focus as being representatives of Northern Ireland.

1675. The tendency in Europe is for MEPs to see themselves as members of party groups — for example, as ALDE members, PSE members, or European People’s Party members — and take that perspective when they sit in the European Parliament. You will have to keep your MEPs together. I am not sure that anyone has thought about that; it occurred to me when I was reflecting on what questions the Committee might ask. You must give them support or, to use a modern phrase, big them up.

1676. You must make your MEPs realise that they are important. They are the three people who can influence the normal method of legislation in Europe to the advantage of the people of Northern Ireland. However, they will have to work together. If they fragment and see themselves as party voices in Europe, they will lose that perspective. You will have to work very closely with them.

1677. When our Minister for Europe was a former MEP, we suggested that we should have grand committee debates and invite the European parliamentarians. The German Parliament invites its MEPs to its chamber to debate European issues. Sadly, we did not adopt such an approach; however, we try to keep in contact with MEPs. For example, we go across to tripartite meetings, and they come to tripartite meetings in the Lords and the Commons. The Assembly must keep your MEPs focused on their role as European parliamentary representatives of Northern Ireland and make a big thing of their importance. They are important, and they will be more so when the Lisbon Treaty is passed.

1678. Mrs D Kelly: My question follows from the last. It is important to encourage a greater understanding of, and greater engagement with, the EU in the community and among citizens. The referendum on the Lisbon Treaty at least kicked off that debate in the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, in the midst of the gloom and doom of economic recession, many people are inward looking. How do we maximise the potential of Europe and raise awareness of it among our citizens?

1679. Mr Connarty: Some people have tried other models, such as creating a grand forum where people come together. There may be an argument for doing that. If people can genuinely see the synergy between their interests and those of their elected representatives and Government, that can be very beneficial and can create a stronger unity of purpose. It would be very good if that purpose could be decided on and if the communities could decide what they want to make a priority and put aside their internal conflicts and difficulties, rather than presenting them every time and thus dividing their focus. That would allow the possibility of having an overarching European grouping.

1680. I have not seen that done very well anywhere. There is a European movement in the UK, but there is quite a lot of conflict around the matter of Europe and people have not come together with a unity of purpose in the way that pro-Europeans — Europhiles — would like.

1681. Mr Elliott: Is that because a lot of UK citizens do not feel that they are Europeans?

1682. Mr Connarty: That is the great difficulty that we face. There is a history of substantial media ownership being held by a disgruntled former Commonwealth — and now American — citizen who has taken a completely anti-European stance in that media for a long time. That stance has taken quite a hold.

1683. Furthermore, there has been a substantial investment by people in other organisations who have anti-European views and are determined to only play up the negatives. Other organisations are clearly unhappy with EU immigration and employment policies and open entry for workers from the A8 countries has reinforced that stance. One of the problems that we face is that a lot of negative forces have come out in opposition to Europe.

1684. The overarching position of organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry and other business organisations is very pro-Europe. However, those organisations also have gripes about there being too much EU legislation and regulation, and that splits up the consensus.

1685. If you cannot create an overarching grouping in Northern Ireland with a European agenda that everyone can sign up to, you must ensure that there is complete and open debate on European issues. It is just as attractive to have a situation whereby people are informed, believe that they have a voice, are able to make their voice known through a recognised process and know to whom they should express their views. We in the European Committees have a problem in that respect at the moment, because there is no fixed membership and people do not know whom they should lobby.

1686. The important thing is that people know that, even if their views are different from the view of the Government, they are respected. You must communicate to them that, although you do not promise to take all of their views on board to create a blancmange of thoughts, you will definitely try to operate in a manner that respects those views. It is only possible to make a clear statement of where you stand once you have absorbed people’s views. At the moment, people feel that they do not know enough, do not get to say enough and are not told that their perspective on Europe is valued. That is true at the UK-wide level and, in my experience, in the others parts, regions and countries of the UK.

1687. The Deputy Chairperson: You mentioned that a lot of people get their information on issues such as Europe through the media, which often has its own perspective. Is the UK Government doing anything to enhance and promote awareness of the European Union, including issues such as its impact on citizens and how people can interact with it? Regardless of what people’s perspectives are of Europe and what our involvement is, the fact is that awareness of Europe and the influence that it has are matters that sovereign Governments should take forward.

1688. Mr Connarty: Given the importance of Europe to the UK, both economically and socially, it is amazing how little we have done to make people understand what Europe is about. There has been a tremendous amount of European legislation that we either led on or have taken account of by amending some of our existing legislation; we are great at gold-plating to take on every nuance of the EU’s view of social policy. It is amazing how little we have done to make people understand what Europe is about.

1689. Recently, I have been involved with the Scottish European Educational Trust, which is a very marginally funded voluntary organisation that runs various EU-related events including competitions in primary schools, debates in secondary schools, and very serious debates in universities. The trust would love to do activities throughout society but it does not have the resources to do so. I have tried to find out why it is so badly funded. There was a concept of encouraging communication across Europe and there was supposed to be a European office in every part of the UK, but I cannot find any evidence of that being done.

1690. It is as if we are afraid, as a Government, to be proselytising. When members of my Committee discussed the communication documents, the counterargument was that we did not want to have one-way communication about the benefits of Europe. We wanted to have a debate, so that they could have the right, or Open Europe could have the right, to debate. We were assured that money would be available for a debate, rather than just a one-way transmission of information from the EU, but I have not found that to be available.

1691. There is a great information office. We used to say that if you write to the Chinese Embassy, they will never stop sending material. The information office in the EU Parliament is similar, but it is all about how Europe works. In a sense, it seems to operate on the basis of requests.

1692. I do not see any change in the ordinary citizens’ or schoolchildren’s understanding and knowledge of the Europe that they are in. Europe is another country to lots of people, and we have to do a lot more. The Government are seen by Europe as being quite resistant to change. We have that Anglo-Saxon approach to Europe, which is that we are part of it, but we are not going to change at all; Europe is over there and we are over here. Therefore, we need to do a lot more as a Government. I am disappointed, and I have to say that I have no great praise for UK Governments of any party, including that of the past 10 years, in going on the front foot and at least giving people the facts about what Europe is about, how it operates and what it does for, or to, the citizen, and if it constrains the citizen in ways that can be justified. Therefore, I would like to see more debate on European issues generated by the UK Government, but we seem to be slightly distant from the reality of being full European citizens.

1693. Mr Molloy: Many Governments have hidden behind Europe. They will never say that they were involved in drafting European legislation; they will always say that they get diktats from Europe, which blames Europe.

1694. The European Scrutiny Committee publishes a weekly European report. What criteria do you use to decide what documents are legally or politically important?

1695. Mr Connarty: The document that I have given you is quite clear about the criteria used to decide what documents are legally or politically important. We have summarised them, obviously. Something that is politically important might be signified by whether, if the proposals were enacted, there would be any significant impact, including financially, on the UK, and/or whether the document raises controversial issues on which there are serious differences of opinion in the House and in the country. That would be something of political importance. I gave the example of the fridge mountain, where we did not spot that there was a serious financial interest, and the Committees of the House did not spot that either.

1696. Legal importance might be signified by any suggestion of misuse of the powers that are given under the European treaties; whether the proposal appears to go beyond the competence of the European community or the European Union or offends against the principle of subsidiarity — in other words, it does something at EU level that could be better done at local level; whether the legal base appears doubtful, and we have had lots of debates about legal bases; whether the decision of the Commission to try to do something is outwith the competence that it has, under legal powers, for example, to represent all the countries of the EU on a particular body, and whether that gives them the power to make policy in that area. In some respects, we argue that they have the right to sit on bodies, but they cannot make legislation in relation to the body on which they sit.

1697. Article 308 is overarching. If the treaties have not provided the necessary powers, article 308 can be used. We have gone to the European Court, and we have gone to the European Commission, to analyse why they think that article 308 can be used to expand their competences. When they try to use article 308, we challenge them, because it also has another attachment. If it is used, it is a codecision procedure, and the European Court of Justice then judges whether the legislation has been breached. We are not happy with that, because it takes the judgement of what is competent, and who is right, out of the UK courts and into the European courts.

1698. We will also challenge a proposal if it is ambiguous or its effects are uncertain, or if it might import a new concept into our legal system from another European system that has been favoured by the Commission and that would change the basis of our laws.

1699. Those are the two major reasons why we would consider a matter to be what we call an “A brief" — a matter on which we will report to the House and interrogate Ministers.

1700. Mr Molloy: What happens to matters that are not dealt with by the Committee and are set aside?

1701. Mr Connarty: We refer to those as “B briefs", which are not legally or politically important enough to require a report to the House. They are listed in our weekly report, but they are not reported on in detail. The weekly report simply lists any documents that are considered to be not important. However, if anyone wants to follow up on them, it is not as if they disappear; they are just not recorded in a separate chapter in our report. Last year, we reported on nearly 900 A briefs, and, in the heaviest year, there were 1,600.

1702. The Deputy Chairperson: At what stage of the EU’s development of those proposals do you consider the documents?

1703. Mr Connarty: Most documents are considered several times, not always at one particular point. Scrutiny begins at an early stage. Every document is scrutinised, including the Commission’s consultation documents. Therefore, Green Papers and White Papers, as well as the Commission’s annual policy and strategy document and work programme, are put down for our consideration. We examine every document as it goes to the Council for the first time. When a document comes from the Commission, we respond to it, apart from, for example, prior consultation documents.

1704. Every proposal that might lead to legislation — whether that is a directive or a regulation — is put forward for consideration, along with the Commission’s proposal and the relevant Department’s response — Departments have a specified time in which to respond — and our advisers then analyse those documents and advise on any contradictions or matters that we should examine.

1705. Sometimes, we report on uncontroversial matters. For example, we recently decided to report on the progress of the latest changes to the common agricultural policy, because it is of interest to a large number of people. We have also decided to do something about the European telecommunications strategy. It does not contain anything controversial, so it will not go for debate and we will not have to interrogate Ministers, but it is important enough, if not for Parliament, for large sections of the business and civil population to see. Therefore, it will go into our reports along with controversial matters.

1706. Mr Shannon: I am sorry that I missed your initial evidence. Sometimes, a lot of things happen at the same time; please accept my apologies for not being here on time.

1707. Through the Committee’s scrutiny and questions, the evidence that we have gathered indicates that it is important to have parliamentary contact at every level, whether through the Assemblies, Westminster or contact with our neighbours in the Republic. We are keen to hear your views on how we might enhance and improve that parliamentary contact with respect to European issues.

1708. Mr Connarty: There are many things that you could do. As I said before you arrived, it is important to decide that Europe is a priority. I am not saying that just because the EU is my particular speciality and, therefore, the centre of the universe; the European Union is a reality.

1709. Sometimes, we take on board good practice in our society, such as our court procedures, and spread them into Europe. There are true stories and myths about people getting banged up in European jails for misdemeanours and then languishing for months without due process. Hopefully, such tales will be swept away by the decisions on court procedures, which we would consider to be normal, that are going through the EU. There are many other things, such as health and safety.

1710. That is why we should make the EU a priority. I have explained that that requires somebody who is willing to take on the responsibility to sift, as we do, and to be supported in doing so in order to alert the appropriate Members of Parliament, this Committee, or any other.

1711. The other reason is that, in the process during the debates on the Lisbon Treaty and the European constitution, there was a clear perception in Europe that Anglo-Saxons had a particular view — we were resistant, dragging our heels, and not as enthusiastic as the Italians and others who wanted to ram the treaty through.

1712. However, the European Scrutiny Committee has worked diligently under me and its previous chairs, Lord Grenfell and Lord Roper, in making contacts at COSAC (Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union). We have very active tripartite meetings with MEPs in the Lords and Commons on a circular basis. We also have lots of bilateral contacts with other countries with common interests and which want to come to talk to us or invite us to go to see them.

1713. When we were doing that, at a time when we were seen to be having some trouble with the Lisbon Treaty, the growing warmth of those relationships was not affected, even with the Italians and others who at first regarded the UK Government’s position as a bit difficult. That strain did not transfer to the parliamentarians. We got a hearing when, for example, we expressed our concern about France’s lack of haste in opening up its domestic electricity market, which it did on the last day of the last month and under the threat of being taken to the European Court of Justice by the Commission. We kept hammering away for a free market — our own had been freed up many years previously — but we were still treated as parliamentarians and friends. That happens only when one takes the trouble to go to a country, meet people, look them in the eye and make them realise that one is not against the project or them just because they hold different views.

1714. My committee has found that a tremendous help as it has gone more often to COSAC. We have members who go to the Committee of the Regions to look for, and support others who get, benefits from the European project. Similarly, we go to policy conferences of the Council of Europe. Everyone is invited. We get four delegates to most of the policy conferences — it comes through the Speaker of the House. We encourage members of the appropriate Select Committees to go to the conferences; we go, the Lords go, we make our contribution to the debate, which is, hopefully, listened to and sometimes leads to amendments and changes.

1715. There are lots of ways in which to build networks. I urge the devolved Assemblies not to be afraid of travelling. The press are crawling all over the Scottish Parliament, questioning whether its Members go here or there. Business cannot be done in Europe by sitting at home. One must go to Europe to participate in the process.

1716. Mr Shannon: In other words, the Anglo-Saxons, Ulster Scots and fiery Mediterraneans have different personalities and characters —

1717. Mr McElduff: Do not forget the Gaels. [Laughter.]

1718. Mr Connarty: The Scots are all Gaels. [Laughter.]

1719. Mr McElduff: We need a row.

1720. Mr Shannon: The clear point is that there are a lot of things on which we can agree, and perhaps this process is part of that — we look to what we can agree and move forward on. I appreciate that there are lessons to be learnt from that.

1721. Mr Connarty: I have always said that it would not worry me at all if devolved Assemblies and Parliaments were to have what is called privileged access to the Commission. There is no reason why people should have their voice heard only through ours, either at the level of Government or of Parliament. The Commission is open to contact from the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments right across Europe. I spoke last night at the Scientific Advisory Committees of Europe, and the person who proposed the vote of thanks was from Catalonia — not the Spanish Government; Catalonia has a scientific committee in its own right.

1722. You will find that, in many organisations, there are places at the table for devolved Assemblies in regions of Europe, and those seats should be taken up. Also, you should ask for more and more contact at a higher level. If you cannot get it yourselves, your MEPs are your voice. You have already talked about your MEPs. They have access and the ability to get in the door and maybe take you with them in a way that is not always obvious at first.

1723. When you are seen to be a participant you do not have to agree with everything that is going on. I am amazed by just how respectful the European process is to people from small countries and people with different perspectives. It is much more consensual than our parliamentary system has ever been. Vice-president Wallström said that if about four countries object to a proposal in a council meeting, they would rather take the proposal away and try to find a consensus than force it through. They want people to feel that they are all engaged and all respected in the process, which is something that we could learn from.

1724. Mrs D Kelly: I was interested in what you said about the interrogation of Ministers, given that we are a scrutiny Committee on a broader basis. Does your European scrutiny committee interrogate Ministers from all Government Departments? Essentially, we deal with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. What is the nature and type of questioning or the policies that you would ask of those Ministers?

1725. Mr Connarty: During the Lisbon process, I won the parliamentary inquisitor of the year award on behalf of my Committee — an award that is not always given to Select Committees, but is given to Select Committee Chairpersons every now and then. The award was given because the basis of the Committee’s interrogation was seeking evidence and fact and trying to dispel a lot of the propaganda that had been put around. The conclusions, which we published, were quite strong: basically, the Lisbon treaty, in its effect, would be the same as the constitution, which the Government did not want to hear. However, we could not conclude anything else, having taken the Ministers to task in some detail.

1726. We do not have Ministers from all Departments. We have Ministers from Departments where we think that there are relevant matters to be pursued in evidence. Normally, that evidence will be supplied to the debate that takes place. It is a much more intense process than people just standing up and asking questions. We work much more like a Select Committee, and that is transferred into the European Committees. It is not a matter of someone asking a question and then sitting down. We can pursue a Minister, and that is something that I initiated. A member can be on the trail of a hidden fact that the Minister will not come up with, and we will let the member run with the question until the Minister is in a corner and has to answer yes or no or say whether it is right or wrong. That is very effective.

1727. Mrs D Kelly: I am sure that it is.

1728. Mr Connarty: Our job is to put before Parliament all the available facts. It is not about making the policy; it is about ensuring that the facts that are necessary to make the decision about the Government’s position are out in the public domain. We have had some very stormy sessions with Ministers who refused to accept that if they make a decision in a common position, it is the same as breaching scrutiny. They had another terminology, which was exactly the same thing, because it never altered after they made that agreement. They really reached agreements and tried to duck under the barrier.

1729. We have had two major successes recently. One is that that is now also considered to be a breach of scrutiny, even though the Minister came become us and tried, on two or three occasions, to deny that it was. That has all been changed and, in a sense, the democratic process won. Also, we have an assurance from the Government that when we opt in to anything that we have not previously opted into in immigration or home affairs, it will be put before our committee for scrutiny before they agree to opt in. The process that we got them to agree to will happen after Lisbon, which they are now implementing.

1730. The Committee has one outstanding major point, which is that it does not get to see draft conclusions of the European Council, which the Prime Ministers attend. We say that we should see them, and the Council says that they are limitée — privileged documents — until they are finally agreed. The Scandinavian countries get them, because they mandate their Ministers. We will not be silly or foolish about it, but we want to see those draft conclusions. Ministers have to be called forward to give evidence, so that Parliament is aware of what they are going to do at that Council meeting. We would take evidence in that way as well. It is seeking to put the full facts before Parliament. If a Minister has been advised or briefed by officials, or is leaning towards hiding, obfuscating, or even denying the facts, we will pursue the Minister quite vigorously.

1731. Mr McElduff: Page 14 of your guide states that:

“Each year the Scrutiny Committee recommends for debate on the Floor of the House about three documents".

1732. In the current situation, what do you see coming down the line that would require that level of attention by the House of Commons?

1733. Mr Connarty: Possibly, we will be looking for a debate on the regulation of the financial sector and the de la Rosiere proposals. We have already determined that we will have the appropriate Minister, Lord Myners, in for evidence, and then we will go for a debate on the Floor of the House, because we think that that is a fundamental debate. Some people say that there are prejudices against the open hedge-fund-based system that has been very beneficial to the financial markets in London; other people say that it is about time. Whatever opinion you take, no one can deny that there has been a fundamental change in the approach to regulating the financial markets. De la Rosiere will probably have the final say, and he has been asked to come back with specific proposals before June. We will probably have the Minister in then, and we will have a debate on that issue before the summer. That is one issue that is definitely in our sights for a debate on the Floor of the House.

1734. The Deputy Chairperson: You mentioned policy conferences. You are the first witness to do so, and I would be interested to hear some background on how those operate and what sort of areas they cover.

1735. Mr Connarty: Every presidency decides what key issues they will try to tackle in their term. Conferences are always held in the European Parliament — sometimes, if there is a large attendance, in the hemicycle. Therefore, they will agree, with the Commission and the European Parliament, that they want to have conferences on those key issues, and the appropriate directorate-general and Commissioner will be brought in. Each conference will be chaired by the appropriate person. For example, a recent conference concerned with foreign affairs, such as the Eastern Partnership, was obviously of interest to the Czech Republic. Therefore, it was chaired by the Czech Foreign Minister under the Presidency of the Czech Republic. If an economic matter is concerned, such as the current financial crisis, it will be chaired by an economic Minister, and there will be speakers from the European Central Bank and so on.

1736. At the conferences, some people make considered and prepared speeches, the text of which will be written by their Parliament and read into the minutes. Others will genuinely get involved in contributing from a certain perspective or position of knowledge, and, of course, there will be contributions from the European parliamentarians who chair the Committees in the European Parliament.

1737. I find the process to be fantastic for learning and for being listened to. It is not just about what happens at the conference, it is the discussions at the dinner table and during coffee breaks. You get to know who has something to contribute, who is sympathetic, and who can extend your ideas and take them to the decision-making process.

1738. Some Members of the European Parliament are key people at those conferences. When they stand up to speak, they are listened to, encouraged and supported. I will not mention any names, but I can think of some who have a good grasp of constitutional issues, and others who have a very good grasp of free-market issues. When they speak, people listen. I think that that is what is required of MEPs. Looking at those Members, it is quite clear that they have been encouraged by their Governments and their colleagues from their home nations. Their expertise has been recognised, and they have been put forward to chair Committees and report on issues. That is something that you have to think about for your own MEPs.

1739. Your Government should brief your MEPs so that they are able to represent a Northern Ireland perspective; I do not know whether you call it Government here, but we use that term in Scotland. Your MEPs need proper support to ensure that they can make relevant and telling contributions to such conferences, and, if you can, please try to get invited along yourselves.

1740. The Deputy Chairperson: You mentioned the gold-plating of EU legislation. Are you aware of the perception that, while people in other countries are very enthusiastic EU citizens but are not enthusiastic EU legislators, we are more enthusiastic about EU legislation than EU citizenship? Do you think that it is right that we fulfil legislative requirements, but do not celebrate being European? Alternatively, do you think that other countries focus too much on being European citizens and not enough on the legislative consequences?

1741. Mr Connarty: We are by no means perfect; indeed, the Commission’s analysis of implementation rates indicates that we have been quite slow in some areas. However, there is no doubt that, historically, the UK has implemented EU legislation as soon as it has come forward. Norway is the best at transposing every EU directive as quickly as possible, even though it is not even in the EU. The Norwegians are happy to legislate, but they will not let us get their fish. [Laughter.]

1742. I bought a second-hand book called ‘The Mad Officials: How the Bureaucrats are Strangling Britain’. It was written in the 1990s, and it is about how British Government officials gold-plated every EU rule. There have been some interesting examples recently of our going further than necessary and producing very strong legislation by combining EU directives with our own officials’ reports.

1743. We try to be honest by implementing EU legislation quickly, probably because we believe in it much more than some of the central European countries. The anglicised model is a free-market model, and we believe in doing things in line with the liberal markets of Europe. Everyone has rowed back from that somewhat, particularly in the Lisbon debates, although it has come too late to prevent the meltdown of the free-market system. The French would have liked the liberal free markets to have been much more constrained, whereas the British and the Germans would probably have opted for much stronger liberal free markets being the overarching purpose of EU economic policy. Over the last 10 years, we have enthusiastically put through every piece of EU legislation as quickly as possible, particularly those that relate to the free market, such as the directives on postal services and domestic electricity. We see the free-market model as being more beneficial than others.

1744. Our attitude to European citizenship has been a problem. Europe is still regarded as being another country, and I am not sure how that perception can be changed. However, we have taken advantage of some EU legislation, and many British citizens live in other European countries. Indeed, half a million people from the UK own timeshares in Spain alone, and a number of timeshare directives have protected British people from scams. We have been quite happy to use the legislation to our advantage, but we somehow view ourselves as expats rather than European citizens. I do not know why that is the case, and it would be very useful if I could get to the root of it.

1745. I feel very much Scottish, but I also feel very much European. There is perhaps a contradiction in England because it had an empire. People whose empire has disappeared do not want to be absorbed into something else, because they feel that they will lose their historical personality. That is a psychological problem for a lot of people in England, but perhaps not for people in Wales or Scotland who have never been the main nation in an empire.

1746. Mrs D Kelly: We will not go into that one.

1747. The Deputy Chairperson: That is an astute observation, but we will not open it up for discussion because we could be here for the rest of the week. Thank you very much for your helpful and enlightening contribution.

1748. Mr Connarty: It was a pleasure to meet you all.

29 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Ronnie Hall

European Commission

1749. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): We will take evidence from the representative of the Directorate General for Regional Policy in the European Commission. I welcome Ronnie Hall.

1750. Mr Shannon: Who is the second representative, Chairperson? I want to hear you say his name.

1751. The Chairperson: The second representative has not turned up by prior arrangement. [Laughter.]

1752. Mr Shannon: Who was that second representative?

1753. The Chairperson: Do you mean Mr Hall’s colleague? [Laughter.]

1754. Mr Hall, you are very welcome. Thank you for your attendance. I advise you that the session is being recorded by Hansard. We look forward to your presentation. Please make yourself available for questions afterward.

1755. I remind members that mobile telephones should be switched off.

1756. Mr Ronnie Hall (European Commission): I have had the opportunity to speak to you, or bore you, with the details of the Northern Ireland task force in the past. Some Committee members were in Brussels some time ago.

1757. By way of introduction, I come from a Directorate General for Regional Policy, which comprises around 700 people in a European Commission of 25,000. We are responsible for about 25% to 30% of the EU’s budget. We are beaten into second place only by the common agricultural policy.

1758. Most of my directorate’s activity concerns the management of development programmes. We have around 320 programmes to manage across the European Union between 2007 and 2013. Like most public services these days, our resources are spread pretty thinly.

1759. Against that background, and as many of you are aware, the President of the European Commission stopped off in Belfast in May 2007. At that time, you were on the verge of putting the institutions back in place. President Barroso agreed that he would seek to accompany the institutions in Northern Ireland by setting up a task force inside the European Commission. Basically, the idea was to draw Northern Ireland into the mainstream of European policy and programmes.

1760. On his return to Brussels, President Barroso allocated the day-to-day responsibility to my boss, Commissioner Danute Hübner, who has responsibility for regional policy, because she is the individual in the Commission who has the most day-to-day contact with the region’s authorities, as she manages regional policy. Possibly that is of most relevance to the agenda that President Barroso agreed with the First Minister and deputy First Minister in May 2007, which involved drawing Northern Ireland into policy and programmes with a view to enhancing economic performance and competitiveness in the region.

1761. It was by happy coincidence, from my point of view, that I was the director for co-ordination in the Directorate General for Regional Policy at that time, so I was allocated the day-to-day job of establishing and running a Northern Ireland task force.

1762. It is a unique task force in the life of the European Commission, because we have never really brought together different departments in a form of joined-up thinking in the service of one geographically specific area. Accordingly, I work with the other Directorates General that have major budgetary responsibilities, such as Agriculture and Rural Development, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, and Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, with its substantial European social fund involvement in the region.

1763. Other departments have smaller financial resources but a great deal of importance and influence, such as the Directorate General for Research, which runs the research framework programmes; the Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry, which runs the competitiveness and innovation programme; the Directorate General for Environment, in view of the importance of the sustainability agenda; and the Directorate General for Education and Culture, which is also very important from the point of view of the development of the labour force through education.

1764. Our working method has been one of very close partnership with the authorities in the region, particularly with the formal authorities, such as the Department of Finance and Personnel and others. We have reached out to civil society, met with people and taken contributions from farmers and representatives of business, for example.

1765. When we got back to Brussels with President Barroso’s original idea, we started to design what we would seek to achieve in that partnership. We agreed that we would do a stocktaking across the key policy areas in an attempt to gauge just how far Northern Ireland was involved in European policy and programmes. We drew up an inventory of the region’s involvement in the key policy areas. For example, we considered the number of projects and amount of money that Northern Ireland has drawn down under the research framework programme and matters of that nature.

1766. We then proceeded to a diagnostic stage, where we examined areas that we felt could be further developed. We put all of that together in a report, which subsequently became what the European Commission calls a “Communication". A Communication is one of our set-pieces that has considerable significance. When a Communication is adopted by the Commission, it means that it does not belong to Danuta Hübner: it belongs to all 27 European Commissioners. Therefore, the implementation of a Communication — if it implies implementation, and this one does — involves all the concerned departments of the European Commission.

1767. I return to the partnership between the Commission and the Administration in Northern Ireland. The idea that was born that the reaction to the Commission’s Northern Ireland Task Force report would take the form of an action plan that would have targets and be time bound. As members probably know, a draft action plan has existed for a considerable time. You probably understand the reasons why it was finally approved only in March 2009. We now move to a new phase in implementation. I do not say that we are now moving to implementation because, even before it was formally approved and existed in draft form, the contacts continued daily between the European Commission and the Departments here in order to advance as far as possible in the areas identified in the Commission’s report.

1768. From Northern Ireland’s point of view, the process has been a considerable success. We have not done that kind of work with any other region. It has yielded interesting results, and it comes with a commitment on the part of the European Commission that there will be full accompaniment in the realisation of the action plan.

1769. Contacts between Northern Ireland and Brussels will undoubtedly intensify over the coming period, and we will help the Administration to realise its ambitions sector-by-sector, be it through increasing its involvement in the research framework programme; greater involvement with Invest NI in the competitiveness and innovation framework programme; or in other areas of interest, such as the possibility that there will be a Northern Ireland conflict resolution centre. That centre may be called the European conflict resolution centre, if some of those involved have their plans realised.

1770. We had a very productive meeting in Brussels on 31 March. That was the last political act in the process between the new First Minister — if I can still use the term “new" — and the deputy First Minister with President Barroso. That is interesting because, even though the process has had a very long gestation, Northern Ireland’s Administration still has the attention of the President of the European Commission. He met with its representatives and had a longish meeting that permitted a number of very important issues to be discussed. Those issues included the conflict resolution centre; the proposed investment by Bombardier, which is of major consequence not only to Northern Ireland, but — in my view and in that of many others — to the European aviation industry; exchanges of officials between the European Commission and the Administration in Northern Ireland; and matters of that nature.

1771. That is the current position. We will continue to implement the action plan in Northern Ireland, and the Administrations here and in Brussels will hold regular monitoring meetings — if that is the best terminology — to gauge progress and to examine problems and obstacles that have arisen. If necessary, they will propose new ideas, particularly in the context of economic crisis, which had not set in when the Northern Ireland task force was launched, and try to achieve outcomes that are as useful and concrete as possible. I am happy to take questions.

1772. The Chairperson: That was a helpful presentation. Thank you, Ronnie.

1773. Mr Spratt: Thank you for the presentation, Ronnie; it is good to see you again. Our visit to Brussels was worthwhile and in no way boring. Not much time was wasted during the programme.

1774. I want to ask about research and the importance of building alliances. We have talked to other Parliaments in Scotland and the South of Ireland about that matter to try to obtain funding, because there are indications that we need to have other regions on board. I, and others, were slightly concerned at the lack of joined-up conversations or direct contact with some other regions, particularly in the United Kingdom and the South of Ireland. We must do that to maximise research. Funding seemed to be available but needed to be joined up with another area. Has any work been done on that issue? What is the current situation?

1775. Mr Hall: To date, the new framework programme runs from 2007 to 2013, which is the same duration as your regional programme. Although it is now 2009, it is relatively early days, because such programmes tend to take off relatively slowly and accelerate towards the end of the period. That is the typical implementation profile. So far, the situation in Northern Ireland is progressing well. At the beginning of the month, approximately 60 participants from Northern Ireland were involved in 50 projects in the seventh framework programme for 2007 to 2013. The allocated funding is approximately €8·5 million, which is about £8 million. For the entire previous seven years, the allocation was £31 million. Therefore, one third of that sum has been allocated after the first third of the period has elapsed. The rate of implementation has probably been better than that the previous period, given that programmes tend to accelerate later on.

1776. The framework programme is a European programme, and is different from a national programme in the sense that we want as much cross-national co-operation as possible in order to create synergies and achieve a better outcome. That is a difficult trick to pull off, not only in Northern Ireland but across the European Union. That is one reason why the report emphasises the importance of the possibility of an all-island approach to developing research projects. Northern Ireland would probably not have the necessary critical mass for most research projects; it is too small, and, therefore, partnership is absolutely essential. In fact, in some ways, the situation is even more testing in this new period because the average size of a project has substantially increased. The challenge of obtaining partners is greater than ever.

1777. One contribution — whether it is big or small — that would improve the way that Northern Ireland operates in the context of the framework programme is to have more exchanges of officials in both directions, if possible, between the Directorate General for Research and the Northern Ireland Administration. At the moment, I think that one person is detached to that Directorate. I also understand that the Commission’s Directorate General for Research will hold roadshows in Northern Ireland to improve the knowledge that is required to mount a successful project.

1778. Mr Spratt: Just one person? How many do you think would be a decent number? One seems to be a bit of a token.

1779. Mr Hall: There is one person at the moment. There could be regular changes. Through working with different people in different parts of the Directorate responsible for research and technological development, a fund of experience could be built back here in Northern Ireland. That is the objective. It is not just a programme for one person for a year, or whatever, and then it finishes. The following year, someone else will come and work in another part.

1780. Mr Spratt: Is there only one position?

1781. Mr Hall: It is flexible. In each Directorate General of the Commission, there is a reasonably large number of posts for secondees. Although there is some notion of national balance across the 27 member states, there are no hard and fast rules. There is no quota for Northern Ireland. In that kind of process, the race winner can be the region that reacts quickest or is the most enthusiastic, or the one that provides the person with the right qualifications for the area in the Directorate General.

1782. Mr Elliott: Thank you very much for the presentation, Mr Hall. In your opening comments, I noticed that you said that the EU President had “stopped off" in Belfast. That made it seem as though he had half an hour to spare and dropped in on us, rather than making a dedicated visit as we all had assumed.

1783. Given that the European Union is expanding, how big a part of it is Northern Ireland, politically and in a lobbyist regime? Are we a very small fish in a big pond, or do we carry much more than our weight suggests?

1784. Mr Hall: The phrase “stopped off" was not intended to imply that his visit was of secondary importance, otherwise, there would not have been a Northern Ireland task force. You have to allow a little bit of latitude for the way that we speak in County Tyrone.

1785. Mr Elliott: Well, I am from Fermanagh.

1786. Mr McElduff: You have to go through Tyrone on your way home though.

1787. Mr Hall: He could stop off in Dungannon.

1788. The impact of lobbying is very difficult to measure because there are no known indicators. The results can be very long term. Most regions of the European Union have concluded that they need a regional office on the doorstep of the European institutions. Northern Ireland has a regional office, and it has been extremely useful. Over time, is the impact of Northern Ireland’s lobbying improving? I think that the only real measure of that is the existence of the Northern Ireland task force, which is unique. No other area of the European Union has a task force of that nature. However, I do not know whether its existence can be attributed to lobbying. I imagine that President Barroso was lobbied, in some sense of the term, when he visited in 2007 — at least by senior politicians. Globally speaking, because of the Northern Ireland task force, I cannot honestly say that Northern Ireland is losing out in the race.

1789. That is one of the principle objectives of the task force report. We do not call it lobbying; we call it networking. In the modern economy in particular, it is important that regions are interlinked and that there are good contacts and good flows of people — particularly decision-makers — in all directions. That is one of the most important things to achieve. It is a more graceful form of lobbying, but it is important to get involved in networking. The report contains a number of suggestions in that regard, and a lot of them have been followed up already.

1790. Mr Elliott: Do you accept that directives are implemented to a different degree in various countries throughout Europe? Do you see that as a problem — particularly for Northern Ireland, where they are, sometimes, implemented to the highest degree?

1791. Mr Hall: It is difficult to be precise in that field. In this context, the member state is the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom has a relatively good track record in what is called the transposition of European directives into national law. Most of my experience in the implementation of directives is anecdotal, and, therefore, not serious evidence. However, accusations are made sometimes. For instance, I have heard that one of the problems facing transport-industry operators in the United Kingdom is the tendency to gold-plate. That term is reserved for when a relatively simple directive comes from Brussels, and a battery of national rules and regulations, which were unforeseen in the original directive, are added on. However, the record is reasonably good.

1792. Advantage is not necessarily gained from the transposition or non-transposition of a directive. A classic example is in the field of environmental policy, where the degree of transposition differs according to the member states. In my area of work, which is regional policy, the time will come when we will probably be forced to suspend payment if the transposition is not satisfactory in some member states.

1793. Mr Molloy: Thank you for your presentation, and welcome back. The presentations that you gave us in Brussels and here have been beneficial to our response to the Barroso task force. This is the only area that has a task force; have we made the most of it? Have the Departments grasped the opportunities provided by that unique task force and made the most of them? What do you think of the Executive’s response to the Barroso task force report?

1794. Further to Jimmy Spratt’s question, do we have enough people there to ensure that we get the best income?

1795. Mr Hall: The European Commission produced the Northern Ireland task force report in April 2008. It is true that a long time elapsed before the action plan was agreed formally by the Northern Ireland Executive. There was a loss of momentum. As the person from the European Commission who was chairing the work of the Northern Ireland task force, I had to explain the reasons for that to my colleagues of different nationalities from the various departments. I had to explain to them some of the intricacies of Northern Ireland politics and tell them not to worry and that everything would be fine some day.

1796. My biggest concern during that period —

1797. The Chairperson: We admire your faith.

1798. Mr Hall: It could only come from a native.

1799. My biggest concern during that period was over a classic case with which you are all familiar. One of the most difficult things to achieve in a public service is to get Departments to work together. To put it most simply, around the table of the Northern Ireland task force, I have people from the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of the Environment and from research and development, none of whom are my responsibility. I do not complete their annual reports or do their promotion recommendations.

1800. During that period, there is always a risk that people will lose interest and that the process will lose momentum. I am pleased to say, however, that that has not been the case. It has been helped, for example, by the visit that was undertaken on 31 March, which, once again, brought into play the President of the European Commission and that, by definition, has brought all my colleagues into line.

1801. To go a little further, that is not something that can be done twice. I could not afford another hiatus of many months and keep the Northern Ireland task force together. That is not in your interests. No one knows who will be the President of the next European Commission in 2010. If it is not Mr Barroso, will the new person have the same interest in Northern Ireland? For the rest of this year, there is a window of opportunity, which, if it works well, will carry us forward into 2010. We must exploit that.

1802. Mr Shannon: I apologise for having to leave during your presentation. I was doing something for the press, and I had to get it finished before the deadline. I was not ignoring you.

1803. The building of alliances with Scotland, Wales and — if necessary and when suitable — the Republic of Ireland has reoccurred.

1804. Mr Spratt: I have already asked that question.

1805. Mr Shannon: I apologise; I was not here to hear the answer. I am keen to know how we can influence that, access it or do better than we have done in the past.

1806. Mr Hall: You asked the question in a slightly different way, and there is one aspect that I did not cover in my answer. The new co-operation programmes that are funded by the European regional development fund offer a great opportunity. For example, a new programme brings Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic together in one programme for the first time. That is one of the best-performing programmes in European Union, with some 65% of the resources already having been allocated. It is a relative oddity among co-operation programmes in that the quality of its management, particularly its financial management and financial control or audit, was approved in our so-called compliance assessment in Brussels. That is interesting now, and for the future, because the current financial planning period ends in 2013, and, as we move forward, thoughts will turn to what will happen in 2014.

1807. Nearly everyone can agree that co-operation programmes are an important priority for European regional development funding. It is important that Northern Ireland makes a huge success of those programmes and uses that as handle on the future, particularly by continuing to cement the PEACE programme, because it is not clear that there will be another PEACE programme after 2013. The balance of probabilities on that is probably negative. Therefore, co-operation across borders on regional development is very important; just as it is, as I have said, in other key policy areas, such as research and development projects.

1808. Ms Anderson: Thank you, Ronnie. That was very informative.

1809. You mentioned the Communication that was adopted by the Commission, the inventory of projects that have been done, and the amount of money that had been drawn down. I do not know whether the Committee has access to that collated information, but it would help the Committee to get where it wants to go. I am not sure whether it is possible for the Committee to receive that information, or whether it has been received in another form that has gone over my head, but I would like the Committee to have it in order to track developments.

1810. Are the 60 companies that have drawn down €8·5 million in the course of the seventh framework programme from across Ireland?

1811. Mr Hall: They come from Northern Ireland only.

1812. Ms Anderson: There was a conference — I think it was in November 2008 — in which agencies from the North and South came together to try to tap into the seventh framework programme in an all-Ireland context, because they saw opportunities to draw down that money for research and innovation projects. You must have additional information, because the figures given then were that there were 50 companies involved in 18 projects. Are they included in that €8·5 million funding? I understand, and correct me if I am wrong, that €50 billion is attached to that framework programme. Is there that much money involved?

1813. Mr Hall: Yes, the whole framework programme is worth roughly €50 billion over seven years.

1814. In reply to the first question, the report was published. It is in two parts: there is a short political commentary of about five pages on the main areas to be explored and a Department-by-Department analysis, with the recommendations. Those recommendations form the basis of he action plan.

1815. Ms Anderson: Is there a section in the report containing information on the projects in which we were involved and how much money was drawn down for them, or must that be extrapolated from the document? You said that an inventory of that had been done. Can we have that information?

1816. Mr Hall: It is one of those classical problems in the sense that the information is collected by sector or by theme rather than by geographical area. We did a special exercise to measure the impact of those sectoral programmes in Northern Ireland. We intend to update that regularly, and, in the course of our monitoring of the action plan, we will make available information on performance to the Administration here. That is an example of the unique service that will be offered by the Northern Ireland task force. Frankly, we could not do the same for the 274 regions of the European Union, because that would involve civil servants in the European Commission working on nothing but statistics.

1817. Ms Anderson: Will each Department produce an action plan annually, or are they now committed to producing one action plan through the lifetime of the task force?

1818. Mr Hall: At present, it is one action plan that is implemented and monitored jointly by the Commission and the Administration. However, the action plan is updated as necessary. That is one of the benefits of contact with the Commission — people have the opportunity to say to Northern Ireland Departments, “Here’s a new thing, have you thought about this"? Therefore, nothing is set in concrete. It is a framework with the flexibility that is required for sensible adjustment.

1819. Mr McElduff: I am interested in the conflict transformation centre and its European dimension.

1820. The Chairperson: It is about time.

1821. Mr McElduff: I would like Mr Hall to tell us a bit more about the Commission’s interest in that, and about the potential that it sees in it from a wider European perspective. Are we any closer to identifying a site? Will it be in the listed buildings at the Maze/Long Kesh site?

1822. Mr Hall: We are not planning to site it in Brussels. [Laughter.]

1823. It is an internal question, as members will be aware. On 31 March, President Barroso told the First Minister and deputy First Minister that they should come forward with their ideas, and the Commission would discuss them constructively. We can interpret that as meaning that he is willing to help if there can be agreement inside Northern Ireland on the proposed structure. The Commission would need to know what the centre’s aims and objectives would be, what its structure would be, and how it would relate to other ongoing activities in that field in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. As you know better than I do, there are a number of projects in that field across the globe and in Ireland, North and South. Most importantly, we would need to know what kind of seed capital would be available inside Northern Ireland to get it going.

1824. It is possible that the European Union could support it. It is too early for me to give any definitive answer on that, but likely sources could be the International Fund for Ireland or the European regional development fund. I know that people from the Province have been exploring the possibilities in the budget of the Directorate General of Education and Culture. There are a number of possibilities that might support the project, but at present, since the meeting on 31 March, the ball is in the court of the Administration here.

1825. The Chairperson: That completes the questions. Thank you very much for your presentation and for your answers. If you wish to provide any additional information, please do so, and if we wish to have any further clarification we will be in contact with you. Thank you, and good afternoon.

1826. Mr Hall: Thank you; it was my pleasure.

29 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr George Dorrian
Mr Paul Givan
Mr Wilfred Mitchell

Federation of Small Businesses

1827. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): I welcome to the meeting Wilfred Mitchell, Paul Givan, and George Dorrian from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). I see that you are handing out manifestos already. I did not expect that. You are here to offer evidence to our inquiry on European issues. We will be very happy to hear what you have to say, and perhaps you will then answer questions. We expect the evidence session to last approximately half an hour.

1828. Mr Wilfred Mitchell (Federation of Small Businesses): Thank you. I am pleased to be here today to follow up on the written submission on European issues that we provided to the Committee. As you are all aware, it is an interesting time for European politics in Northern Ireland, with elections just around the corner. The Federation of Small Businesses recently held the first of a number of public debates, giving local candidates the opportunity to speak directly to the business community about where they stand on issues relevant to that community.

1829. We were encouraged by the turnout and the candidates’ understanding of the issues facing small businesses, many of which emanate from European legislation. We all recognise that Europe is at the centre of economic and social life. The FSB is on record for its praise of the business mentality of the Think Small First strategy, which has grown in prominence recently. There is much work to do, especially on the way in which European legislation is devised and implemented. Members should have received a copy of the FSB manifesto, which covers those points.

1830. The recent FSB document entitled ‘Burdened by Brussels or the UK? Improving the Implementation of EU Directives’ was based on a UK-wide survey of more than 1,000 FSB members. It recommended that the Government should set up an independent, small, central body to assess the potential burden of all new legislation. That body would conduct approved risk assessments that would focus resources on the most relevant businesses and would be involved in all stages of the legislative process.

1831. The case was made for representatives to attend legislative meetings at an EU level and to identify potential problem areas early in the process. The document called for retrospective regulatory impact assessments on existing laws, examining not only envisaged costs, but real costs to businesses. The FSB believes that the use of clear and unambiguous language in regulations should be a key priority for legislators, as many small business owners complain about confusion about what is required of them. Jargon should be consigned to the dustbin.

1832. The main plank of our message is that the strategic relationship between all strands of public administration should be improved. There is a perception that there are all sorts of individual structures and programmes with little co-ordination. Given the amount of legislation that originates in Europe, we welcome the engagement of this Committee on the issue and are happy to take questions on our submission.

1833. The Chairperson: Thank you. I note that the FSB manifesto includes a demand for an end to gold-plating. What experiences have your members had of gold-plating? Has it been an adverse experience?

1834. Mr George Dorrian (Federation of Small Businesses): The most common complaint about gold-plating among our members is that other EU member states pick and choose which legislation suits them to implement, whereas there is a perception that gold-plating occurs lock, stock and barrel in the UK with little room to manoeuvre. Some of our members who also operate in the Republic of Ireland have mentioned that to us.

1835. The Chairperson: Is the evidence for that belief anecdotal, or do you have evidence from your members that confirms their grave suspicions?

1836. Mr Dorrian: We have no formal documentation, but the evidence comes from a number of case studies that our members have brought to our attention.

1837. Mr Mitchell: There was one to do with the pharmacies, although there is another name for it. It was to do with the effect of chemicals. We were able to move in early and have a significant impact. We removed a lot of the gold-plating in the early stages. We have papers on that issue.

1838. Ms Anderson: Thank you for your presentation and your written submission, in which the FSB calls for a dedicated EU committee that would help small and medium-sized enterprises by prioritising the roll-out of current EU policy. The document also contains a call for a dedicated forum. The Committee has taken evidence from EU Commission representatives and others, who suggested that the North’s critical mass is too small. Given the connecting threads that exist in all-Ireland and east-west contexts, would it not be better to have a dedicated, broader forum that links into strands 2 and 3 of the Good Friday Agreement rather than having a more insular view? We do not have the critical mass that would allow us to tap into programmes that are trans-national in nature.

1839. Also, you expressed disappointment that the small and medium-sized enterprises did not benefit from finance that was available under multi-annual programmes. Will you tell us a bit more about that?

1840. Mr Paul Givan (Federation of Small Businesses): Given the amount of legislation that is generated from Europe that the Executive and Assembly must then implement, there should be a dedicated Assembly committee to deal with European issues. We believe that a consultative forum, like that which OFMDFM established recently on the economy, could be established to deal with European issues.

1841. In the briefing paper, we suggested that such a consultative forum should comprise MEPs, members of the Committee of the Regions, the social partners, MLAs — ideally from an Assembly committee on Europe — and civil servants. Representatives of the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland could attend that forum as observers. That would be a good way to involve all the stakeholders who are involved in European matters and to communicate to the Assembly all the issues that it and the Executive can use to get feedback. That would go a long way to give European issues a more central role, which we feel that they merit.

1842. On the issue of expanding the cross-border-type operation, we want to ensure that the present North/South bodies operate effectively, and the interests that impact on cross-border businesses should be worked on closely. InterTradeIreland has a key role to play in that. It should be more pro-active by involving businesses and calling meetings and summits on those types of issues.

1843. We produced a document that touched on the issues of European funding, energy costs, mobile-roaming charges and the variance in fuel duties, the latter two of which are cross-border problems. Therefore, we think that co-operation on cross-border issues is vital. We want to ensure — as I am sure all elected Members do — that the bodies that exist carry out their duties effectively.

1844. Mr Shannon: Thank you, gentlemen. I want to ask you two questions. First, in your ‘European Election 2009 Northern Ireland Manifesto — Think Small First’, you refer to the wealth of business opportunities for small businesses. You also mention the influence that Europe can play in business. How do you see the influence of Europe being used here to help small businesses?

1845. Secondly, network-building was a recurring theme that different people raised when we visited different places. I am keen to hear your ideas on how we can build networks in the EU, either through the institutions or other organisations. How can we do that to the full benefit of the people that we represent and, ultimately, the Assembly?

1846. Mr Givan: George will talk about the issue of innovation in Europe. I will then speak on the issue of networking.

1847. Mr Dorrian: From an innovation point of view, the regional innovation strategy for Northern Ireland is very good for local companies. SMEs do not tap into many of the Europe-wide initiatives and programmes. The fact that those are being underused is a problem. According to the Barroso task force report, one of the programmes focused strongly on innovation. We want to see more Northern Ireland SMEs tapping into, and making better use of, those programmes.

1848. The issue of access to finance was mentioned, but I think that innovation is probably the key, especially given the current situation. SMEs should innovate to help to bring themselves out of the current situation. Given the nature of the situation, building networks with different member states will really be the only way to make that happen. A lot of innovation is knowledge-based or technology-based.

1849. Mr Givan: The Executive’s office in Brussels has a key role in identifying which commissioners and politicians are best placed to assist Northern Ireland. From a business perspective, we want the economy to be the priority for the Assembly and Executive in European matters, and the office in Brussels has an important role to play in that regard.

1850. The UK national Government strikes the deals in Europe, so it is crucial that relationships with Government politicians and officials are strong, as they will ultimately sign off such deals. Where the Assembly is involved in issues, it needs to negotiate and influence the UK Government. We have a role to play with the Assembly and Executive in feeding in business issues. We hope that our Ministers in the Assembly will influence and negotiate with national Government.

1851. Mr Mitchell: Renewable energy is an example of that. Europe has set a certain standard and objective for us to try to achieve within a certain time. Our planning laws are not designed to suit those objectives. Brussels is putting pressure on us, locally, to see if we can reach those objectives in the set time, so the rest of the Administration has to come in line. That is an external factor that assists us. If we can get renewable energy at reasonable cost, it will make a great difference. Traditionally, our energy costs have been much higher than those elsewhere in Europe. Norway has hydroelectricity and Denmark has wind power. To compete in the global market, we have to reduce our operational costs. In a roundabout way, Europe is trying make a level playing field that will allow us to compete with those countries.

1852. Mr Moutray: Thank you for your attendance. You have indicated that Federation of Small Businesses operates a dedicated office to campaign for businesses in relation to European issues. How can an Assembly presence in Brussels be managed to best effect? In the current economic downturn, how can we get the most out of it?

1853. Mr Mitchell: There are two aspects to that. Having a presence there would allow us to get early indications and determine the mood over there. However, as we all know, there is total inconsistency among banks and what banks are offering. Our local banks are increasing the interest rates and restricting their loans, but our competitors in Europe are able to overcome that. We are clearly at a disadvantage, and we want to ensure consistency.

1854. Mr Givan: You mentioned the economic downturn. Now, more than ever, the Brussels office has a key role to play. If there is any assistance to be gained from European, Westminster or local funding for the economy and projects, the Brussels office needs to be at the heart of ensuring that any moneys that can be gained from Europe are obtained and targeted at small businesses and the economy. It plays a key role.

1855. Mr I McCrea: Thank you for your presentation. You have supplied a written submission and your European election manifesto. I am surprised that this is the first manifesto that I have had my hands on, so I congratulate you for that. You are airing the issues early, and it is important, in this context, to do that. I note that you recently held a question and answer session with the prospective candidates. I am not sure who will fill that seat, but that is for another day.

1856. In your written submission, you refer to the fact that the MEPs work independently of the Assembly. Without referring to individuals, you recommend that MEPs should be doing this or that. That leaves me to believe that they are not doing all that they should.

1857. How have you found the relationship with the MEPs with whom you have been working? Do you find that it could, or should, be better? Can you expand on their relationship with the Assembly?

1858. Mr Givan: To date, we have had a good relationship with all of the MEPs. We have found that all three have been very willing to take forward the small-business issues that we have brought to them. They are very willing to take briefings from us and to campaign for us, and we have found them to be very helpful in that regard. Hopefully, they have found us helpful in providing them with information.

1859. The MEPs need to act in unison, as far as possible, with the Executive’s agenda. Therefore, it is crucial that the MEPs receive good briefings from civil servants, so that it is not just Executive Ministers who go out to Brussels to campaign on issues; that our impact in Europe is maximised by using MEPs; and that members of the European Parliament get information from the Executive.

1860. If a more co-ordinated approach could be put in place so that members of the European Parliament can access the Administration here, get the information that they need, and then lobby on behalf of the Executive, that could only be to everyone’s benefit.

1861. Mr Mitchell: To return to practical side, I have led two or three delegations of Irish small businesses to Brussels, and on every occasion, we met all three MEPs. They opened doors for us where necessary. The response we got from all three was very effective. However, they need to be more closely tied to home. MEPs have been in Europe for longer than the Assembly has been established, embedded and taking control at home. There is now an opportunity for the two to work together.

1862. Mr Molloy: Thank you for your presentation. On the issue of SMEs not being able to access finance as much as they would like, what is your involvement in, or knowledge of, the European Investment Bank and its benefits? Have you, as an organisation, had any direct involvement with or response to the Barroso task force?

1863. Mr Dorrian: Our colleagues in Great Britain sought finance from the European Investment Bank to be routed through the regional development agencies (RDAs) in England. They thought that that would offer ideal financing to help small businesses. Apparently, the Government are currently looking into that. We have a limited role in calling for the Government to take a more proactive role. That is still up in the air, but the main sticking point appears to be the co-ordination of the flow of money from the Investment Bank to a local level.

1864. Mr Mitchell: We have had difficulties with local banks in encouraging the development of that. They seem to put a lot of emphasis on words and the definition of a viable business before they encourage loans. As you know, the word “viable" is open to interpretation. That certainly has not been to the advantage of small businesses.

1865. Mr Molloy: We have taken evidence in the past that the European Investment Bank has not been used to the full, by SMEs in particular, to access funds and cheaper loans. Secondly, as an organisation that represents SMEs that should benefit from the Barroso task force, have you found any openings within that?

1866. Mr Dorrian: It is fair to say that the European Investment Bank has not been utilised. Certainly, we feel that it has not been utilised to its full potential by businesses in Northern Ireland. Our main focus on the Barroso task force was the economic section, as you would expect, so we are currently looking at the points concerning innovation and access to finance. We do not have any formal documentation; we have spoken informally with MLAs and some MEPs about our feelings about those aspects, but the key issue that we looked at was innovation.

1867. Mr Givan: To give the Committee an example, the enterprise finance guarantee scheme that was introduced was initially being administered by only one of the local banks. Now, the four main banks have signed up to granting businesses access to that scheme. They were reluctant, to a degree, to sign up a local finance offer that was made by the Government. Therefore, we have found the banks to be even more reluctant to get involved with the European Investment Bank.

1868. Mrs D Kelly: Thank you for your presentation. Have you looked at the European Union’s forward work plan? What, if any, proposed policies, procedures or regulations are causing you concern?

1869. Mr Dorrian: The more we looked into the Small Business Act, the more we realised that it is not an Act at all. It is really guidance, with a think-small-first mentality. Therefore, our work has concentrated on trying to get that strengthened to make it more formal. We also looked at the supply-chain network to improve security and to give more access to the SME network. Those are the principal activities that we have been looking at.

1870. Mrs D Kelly: It would be helpful if you were to forward some information to the Committee on those points. I presume that you are also looking at access to public procurement for small businesses?

1871. Mr Dorrian: We are working with the Committee for Finance and Personnel on public procurement, and one of the issues relates to the European aspect of it.

1872. Mrs D Kelly: Do you have any thoughts on the social contract part of it, in respect of apprenticeship creation, for example?

1873. Mr Mitchell: The Committee for Employment and Learning has just undertaken some initiatives in that area, but those are in the early stages. The theory of what Government is doing to try to get over the recession is fine, but we will have to wait to see whether the theory will match the practice. The mechanisms at home must also be in place. Education must be up to a certain standard to be able to deliver, and I am not sure whether all the ts are crossed in that respect.

1874. Mrs D Kelly: It would be interesting if we could learn a bit more about that too.

1875. Mr Spratt: Thank you for your presentation. I am glad to hear that you are talking to the Committee for Finance and Personnel. You touched on public procurement. I noticed that, on measures to open up the single market, one of the issues that you highlighted is a ring-fenced percentage for public procurement for small business. That has obviously been successful in the US. What are your suggestions? I assume that you have been discussing that with the Committee for Finance and Personnel?

1876. Mr Dorrian: It is. I think that the figure of 30% was proposed for guaranteed procurement from SMEs. One other point was that we need to make SMEs more aware of public procurement. Raising that percentage will be simply down to SME’s awareness and ability, as opposed to lot of governmental structures. It is really a matter of improving the capacity of SMEs to bid for public contracts.

1877. Mr Spratt: Small businesses face a major disadvantage in relation to major public procurement contracts, for instance. Could they act as subcontractors in that area?

1878. Mr Dorrian: We have subcontractors. We also try to encourage greater clustering of SMEs. That is a very underutilised area in Northern Ireland. We recognise that SMEs will be unable to bid for very big contracts, but a cluster of SMEs — for example in the knowledge-based areas — would be a lot more competitive and much more able to bid for medium-sized contracts.

1879. Mr Spratt: Are you encouraged by what you are hearing, because, if there is EU legislation on that, it is a way of co-operating with the Assembly?

1880. Mr Dorrian: We are encouraged, to a degree. The Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) recently announced new systems, and it will take some time to see how they will feed down. We still have some concerns, but we will give DFP the benefit of the doubt until we see the new electronic system. I know that it worked well with the Olympic network, which was very web-based and very electronic-based, and between 700 and 800 SMEs in Northern Ireland bid for it, or got onto it. There is a precedent there that, hopefully, we can build on.

1881. Mr Mitchell: Two years ago, we took a delegation to the United States to examine best practice. When we visited Atlanta, we found that that state had ring-fenced up to 40% of its procurement for small businesses. They were also examining barriers for small businesses, such as insurance, and were attempting to remove those barriers. Those activities had a great impact on the economy there in a very short period of time

1882. Ms Anderson: You mentioned in your submission that we:

“did not participate in the MAP programmes aimed at enhancing the access to finance for SMEs."

1883. Have you engaged with the relevant Department — I assume that it is the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Development (DETI), as it is an enterprise and entrepreneurial programme — to get an explanation why?

1884. Mr Dorrian: We wrote to the Department to get some greater detail on the issues and concerns. We are now waiting for a response.

1885. Ms Anderson: On the issue of subcontracting, I have found that in my constituency — and I am sure that the same applies in others — subcontractors feel very vulnerable and unprotected in a legislative context. Many of them have told me that when they are attempting to secure subcontracting work the margins are extremely small. In fact, some have told me that they are being offered 1990 prices for contracts already secured at 2007-08 prices. Is your organisation doing any work to provide protection for SMEs and subcontractors in the procurement process?

1886. Mr Dorrian: Our members have come to tell us about their vulnerability. Currently, we are collecting case studies in an attempt to construct a larger document.

1887. Mr Givan: What we have found frustrating is that big businesses go in for the tenders and secure them. They then give the work to a smaller firm, which may have had a bid rejected for the same tender. In the European context, we find that big business is quite happy to have detailed procedures, because they have the capacity to secure the tenders, but they then farm out the work to the smaller businesses. That is a problem.

1888. Mr Mitchell: We get about 500 calls a month from our members, indicating what their concerns are. Banking is first on the list, redundancies second and procurement third. That may give the Committee some indication of the problem.

1889. Mr Molloy: Is there any indication what the gap is between what the larger or European contractors get for jobs and what the subcontractors get?

1890. Mr Givan: I am sorry; I do not have a figure for that.

1891. The Chairperson: Thank you for appearing before the Committee today, gentlemen, and for your presentation. That was a very good exchange. If there is any additional information that you would like to provide to the Committee, we would be very pleased to receive it. Likewise, it may be that the Committee will be in contact with you to clarify any specific points.

29 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Trevor Newsom

Queen’s University Belfasts

1892. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): I welcome Mr Newsom from Queen’s University Belfast to provide evidence for the Committee’s EU inquiry. You can make an opening statement, after which members will ask questions.

1893. Mr Trevor Newsom (Queen’s University Belfast): I am the director of research and regional services at Queen’s University Belfast. I understand that one my colleagues referred to me in his evidence and that the Committee would appreciate some enlightenment on my role in European matters at the university.

1894. I have responsibility for supporting the strategic development of our research. Part of the strategic development is that of high-quality collaborative programmes with other universities and industry in other countries. In that context, we have an active interest in the seventh framework programme. I am also responsible for postgraduate students, and we are keen to develop European links to ensure that postgraduate students gain additional experience of the global economy, interact with other countries, and learn different cultures and approaches. That is important and will prepare them better for their future career.

1895. I am responsible for the university’s work in the region with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), Invest NI and its work with local companies on the regional innovation strategy. In that context, we consider how to develop European regional partnerships that involve local companies, Queen’s University, European universities and other European companies.

1896. Furthermore, my role extends to the exploitation of our intellectual property. In that context, we work closely with companies in Europe with a view to exploiting and improving our technology. Given the nature of my involvement in European matters through my job, the university has established a European activities co-ordinating group, which is chaired by pro-vice chancellor Gerry McCormack. My directorate services that group.

1897. Mr Shannon: Could any opportunities be offered that are not already being offered? The Committee has received fairly good feedback about the educational exchanges and about the options, opportunities and possibilities for people. There seems to be high uptake of those opportunities. When the Committee visited Brussels, we learned how student exchanges could widen horizons. Is there an opportunity to enhance existing provision?

1898. Mr Newsom: We have links to the Erasmus programme at undergraduate level. However, a greater number of European students want to come to Queen’s than the number of Queen’s students who want to go abroad. That is partly due to the lower of levels of expertise in European languages. Northern Ireland needs to consider a modern-languages strategy, and DEL is in the process of doing that. We tend to expect everyone to speak English.

1899. Moreover, given the strong links with the US, we tend to consider exchanges there at the expense of those in Europe. We should consider that matter further and should recognise that universities are capable actors in developing European strategies. Government Departments tend to see themselves as the links and the co-ordinators, rather than cutting out the middleman and letting the universities take a greater lead. Universities in GB that have used European funding have been much closer to Europe than the universities in Northern Ireland, and part of the reason for that is the buffer that Government provides.

1900. Mr Molloy: As regards the failure of students to take up the opportunity to transfer to Europe, does Queen’s University provide backup to support students from Queen’s while they are in Brussels or elsewhere?

1901. Mr Newsom: We have a very strong support service, both for our students who go out and for students who come to Queen’s. As part of the Erasmus scheme, universities that accept our students in other countries are obliged to provide facilities for them. It is a question of confidence and competence. Students must have the confidence to leave Northern Ireland, and they must have competence in the language of the country to which they go, and that is the problem.

1902. Mr Molloy: A number of courses have outreach programmes or exchanges to the United States and other countries. Is it possible to include a one-year placement to work in the European structures in Brussels and elsewhere in more courses at Queen’s?

1903. Mr Newsom: Yes. I notice that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister action programme report refers to the young staff from the Northern Ireland Civil Service going to Europe on placements. Some of those opportunities could also be opened up to some of the undergraduates, postgraduates and staff from the university.

1904. Ms Anderson: Thank you for your presentation. I am being parochial and thinking about Magee campus in Derry. You said that universities should be viewed as capable actors in developing European strategies. With whom should they engage and network in Europe? Earlier, we heard a presentation that mentioned the seventh framework programme. What is the most appropriate programme for a university to tap in to, and how should a university make that intervention?

1905. Mr Newsom: It depends on the area in which the university seeks assistance. For research, there are three areas in which they should act. The most important is the European Research Council, which provides straightforward research funding for fundamental, blue-sky research. It is a new body that was established between 18 months and two years ago, and there have been two or three calls for proposals.

1906. The next important area is the seventh framework programme, which is a whole portfolio of research programmes that require collaboration across Europe and between universities and companies. The essence of that research programme is on meeting the future needs of the economy in Europe. It is a focused applied research programme.

1907. The other area is the new European Institute of Innovation and Technology, which has just launched a call for three knowledge/innovation communities. That is a big programme. The UK is not playing its full role, and, with the support of DEL, we are keeping in close touch with the developments. I hope that we will be involved in two proposals. I cannot answer for the University of Ulster, but I am confident that it has a person with a role similar to mine to drive the same process ahead.

1908. Some of the European regional development fund (ERDF) proposals for territoriality provide opportunities for the business communities in regions to work with the universities and with higher education in general to establish links into other regions. We have talked about making visits to Finland and about people from Basse-Normandie coming here. Those are opportunities to think about how we can link with chambers of commerce and training groups to develop trans-national collaborations to support training, research, development and, ultimately, trading.

1909. Ms Anderson: Does medical research fit in to any of the three bands that you mentioned?

1910. Mr Newsom: Yes, absolutely. The work that the University of Ulster has done at Altnagelvin Hospital in its Academic Business and Clinical Research and Innovation Facility (ABC-RIF) is ideally suited for cross-collaboration into other regions. That strengthens the work, because it means that any of the small companies that might develop as part of that collaboration have automatic access to other potential export markets.

1911. Mr Spratt: Thanks for your presentation, Mr Newsom. It is often suggested that it is Government’s job to obtain funding. However, on a recent visit to Europe, the Committee talked to universities from the South of Ireland and from Scotland, and they have people who permanently network. They said that networking was required in Europe in order to attract that sort of money. I have a particular interest in Queen’s University, which is in my own constituency. What has Queen’s done? Given that some universities in the South, in Scotland and elsewhere have people permanently employed in networking, what networking does Queen’s University do regularly?

1912. Mr Newsom: We do not have anybody permanently networking in Europe, but we have academic staff who network all the time. An example is the knowledge innovation community work — two staff from the department of chemistry and chemical engineering have been to all of the Brussels meetings related to that initiative. They have met other people there and started to work on trying to put together proposals.

1913. Invest NI provides networking grants, which our academic staff use in order to create networks linked to the development of framework seven and other proposals. An organisation such as Questor has European members as part of a consortium. Therefore, although we do not have anybody out there permanently, we have sufficient contact at an academic level to enable us to know who we might work with and how to get in touch with them, and financial systems are available that enable us to do that.

1914. Mr Spratt: The groups told us that regularly pressing the flesh was terribly important in order to access some of the funding that is now grouped into alliances with other regions, some of them outside these islands. The indication is that there is quite a bit of money available for research work, particularly in medicine, which I know is an area of expertise for Queen’s University.

1915. Mr Newsom: There are lots of opportunities. One of the reasons for my role in the university is that several years ago I ran a European consultancy company that found funding.

1916. Before the European Commission enlarged as much as it has, there was more of an opportunity to press the flesh and to find pockets of money. Some of the changes, and the reduction in the structural funds available to Northern Ireland and the UK, have made that less possible. We mainly use established networks rather than create new ones.

1917. It must be borne in mind that Queen’s University has been in programmes such as Socrates for 15 to 20 years. Consequently, our students go to other institutions and have partnerships with other institutions. We also have a number of Marie Curie fellowship schemes, which attract postgraduates and postdoctoral staff from other universities to us in search of particular expertise. If that sounds defensive and seems that I am saying that we are doing enough, I do not think that that is the case. We can always do more.

1918. Mr Spratt: Ask Gerry to give you a few airline tickets then, ahead of the budget. [Laughter.]

1919. Mr Newsom: I suspect that the nature of some of my recent tasks means that asking for that would lead to my passport being taken away.

1920. The Chairperson: The Committee session is being recorded by Hansard. [Laughter.]

1921. Mr McElduff: Is it?

1922. Does Queen’s University know of the Executive bureau or office in Brussels?

1923. Mr Newsom: Yes, we do: we know and use it. When the task force report was in preparation we had extensive discussions with the colleagues preparing it and, subsequently, we have tried to include in our strategic programmes elements that would feed into it. Within the task force report, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister placed a great emphasis on exporting the expertise that Northern Ireland has built up through the development of reconciliation and conflict resolution. Earlier this year, we sought funding from the Department for Employment and Learning under an all-Ireland programme to work more closely with University College Dublin to develop the academic base for such work, because the Irish Government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, had indicated that they were looking for an academic base that would enable them to contribute to the development in that area.

1924. One or two members who are sitting round the table may recall that, last year, we held a Mitchell Conference on reconciliation, which, I think, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister attended. The year after next, we will be having another Mitchell Conference at Georgetown University, which, again, will pick up issues of reconciliation.

1925. The Chairperson: Thank you very much indeed, Mr Newsom. If you wish to provide any additional information to the Committee, or if the Committee has any queries that it wishes you to respond to, we will be in touch. Thank you.

6 May 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Bob Collins
Ms Evelyn Collins
Ms Jane Morrice

Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

1926. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): I am pleased to welcome Evelyn Collins, Bob Collins and Jane Morrice from the Equality Commission. Thank you very much for your attendance. Jane, I take this opportunity to express our sympathy — as I indicated by letter — on the recent death of Paul.

1927. Ms Jane Morrice (Equality Commission for Northern Ireland): That is much appreciated; thank you.

1928. The Chairperson: This session will be recorded by Hansard for inclusion in our report. Please make an opening statement, after which, members will ask questions.

1929. Mr Bob Collins (Equality Commission for Northern Ireland): Thank you. In the first instance, we have to express an apology to you. There was confusion on our part about the starting time. I am sorry for our late arrival.

1930. The Chairperson: That is all right. Fortunately, the Committee has plenty to occupy its time.

1931. Mr B Collins: We welcome the opportunity to be here, as we welcomed the earlier chance to make a submission on EU issues to the Committee.

1932. There appear to be a number of fundamental propositions. The first is that for the foreseeable future Northern Ireland will be inextricably linked to the European Union. The second is that Northern Ireland’s economic development will also be linked to and affected by the rest of Europe’s. The third is that economic development and the development of a more equal society are themselves inextricably linked — they are the obverse and converse of the same coin.

1933. If those three propositions are true, and I think that they are, the development of a more effective relationship with Europe has a particular relevance for us in the Equality Commission and for the rest of public life in Northern Ireland.

1934. In the first instance, a significant level of equality and anti-discrimination laws that obtain in Northern Ireland is influenced by or derived from legal initiatives under the auspices of the European Union, and that is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.

1935. The second example, as I said earlier, relates to the link between the development of the economy and the development of equality generally — they are not separate, they are not in conflict, they are closely interconnected. It is unlikely that a society that is not operating on an equal basis will develop its economy as it should. A society without an effectively-developed economy is unlikely to be in a position to provide equality of opportunity for all its citizens.

1936. The third point is that life is always a sequence of two-way relationships. Northern Ireland does not simply import from or learn from the European Union. Northern Ireland has a great deal to offer to the European Union, not only in relation to the Equality Commission’s statutory responsibility — equality of opportunity, good relations and anti-discrimination legislation — but because initiatives that have been taken in Northern Ireland have not found expression in other parts of the European Union. Certain experiences and practices in Northern Ireland may be relevant in other areas of the EU or in aspects of EU policy generally.

1937. Free movement of goods and people between member states has been a foundation stone of the European Union since the Treaty of Rome. That is important in Northern Ireland, because it confers real advantage on people from here who wish to live and work in other member states; it recognises the entitlements due to those people; and, by the same token, it reflects that those same entitlements are due to others who come to live and work in Northern Ireland, which is an important part of the statutory responsibility of the Equality Commission.

1938. The Assembly, the Executive and the Committee have specific roles in relation to Europe, which may be touched upon later. Jane Morrice may want to say something from her own perspective as a former member of the European Economic and Social Committee.

1939. Ms Jane Morrice: I am happy to contribute during questions.

1940. Ms Anderson: Thank you for the presentation, Bob. I have read the general observations that are included in the Equality Commission’s submission. I would like you to retract the observation, which you repeated, that equality and the economy are linked. The Equality Commission’s position that the promotion of equality is dependent only on economic prosperity is deeply worrying. From our perspective, it is very worrying. It is unacceptable and, I think, unsustainable.

1941. The facts prove that the Commission’s argument that economic prosperity is dependent on equality is not true. Before the economic downturn, we had 10 years of prosperity across the island. However, despite the Celtic tiger economy in the Twenty-six Counties, there was structural, social and economic inequality. If anything, social and economic inequality has got worse. To say that economic prosperity and equality of opportunity are interdependent is to suggest that we are waiting for economic prosperity in order to have equality. An interpretation and interrogation of that whole paragraph in the submission is needed. It raises major concerns for me. Recently, during the time of prosperity, the gap between the haves and the have-nots increased. Are we saying that in the economic downturn equality must wait? Are we saying that equality was not delivered during the period of economic prosperity and that now, because of the economic downturn, we have to wait?

1942. That is an unfortunate use of terminology in that part of the submission. It is not reflective of the work of the Equality Commission and its statutory responsibility, under section 75(1), to:

“have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity".

1943. Your submission states that:

“In the same way, the existence of good and harmonious relations between various groups of people will be a vital precondition for economic and social development."

1944. Yet, section 75(2) states that public authorities should:

“have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations".

1945. That is the target. The language in your submission turns “desirability" into “vital precondition". Of all the paragraphs, I found that one the most worrying, especially coming from the Equality Commission. I think that it should be retracted.

1946. The Chairperson: Just to clarify, your use of the word “our", when you said that it was unacceptable, was an indication on behalf of your party.

1947. Ms Anderson: I was talking about our party.

1948. Mr Shannon: It is not the royal we.

1949. Ms Anderson: It is not the royal anything.

1950. Mr McElduff: Martina speaks for me and Francie Molloy.

1951. The Chairperson: That is a particularly surprising admission coming from you. However, we understand that you are representing the view of your party.

1952. Ms Anderson: Anyone who speaks at this Committee and questions any witness at an evidence session does so as an individual. We never claim to be representing the Committee in its totality, and I think that that is understood by everyone when they speak.

1953. The Chairperson: Likewise, it is understood by the Chairperson.

1954. Mr B Collins: I would be worried about that paragraph if it meant what Ms Anderson suggested that it does. However, in my view, it does not mean any of those things, and I do not think that it needs to be retracted. It does not establish a hierarchy, and it is not derived from the terms of section 75. It states that to realise the full potential of economic development and equality of opportunity, we must recognise that those two factors have a mutual relationship — there is no doubt about that. It does not mean that you cannot have economic progress in an unequal society. The globe is full of examples of that happening. However, the full potential of economic development cannot be realised unless there is a relationship with equality of opportunity.

1955. In recent times, I have said, and the Equality Commission has frequently said, that equality of opportunity is not a luxury. It is not something than can be disregarded in times of economic downturn. It is not a fair weather friend, to quote something that I said in another place. It is precisely when there are economic difficulties that we have to be absolutely cautious that the needs of equality of opportunity are reflected, protected and assured.

1956. The reference to good and harmonious relationships is a reference as much to the statutory provisions on fair employment and treatment as to anything else. In those circumstances, I would have thought that it is a vital precondition for economic and social development. The notion that one can posit comprehensive, complete and full economic and social development in a circumstance in which there would not be an environment of fair employment and treatment would be to overlook something significant.

1957. If I can reassure Ms Anderson in her concerns, it is not a statement about the relationship between equality of opportunity and good relations as they are set out in section 75(1) and (2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Nor is it a political or an ideological statement about the extent to which equality and economic development can co-exist. It is a statement of the aspirational and ideal potential in the relationship between economic development and equality — that they are mutually supportive and sustaining, and that they are not enemies.

1958. Ms Anderson: The statement says that:

“Economic prosperity and equality of opportunity are mutually interdependent".

1959. That is absolutely clear. We have experienced economic prosperity, and still do for groups and organisations in sections of this society, yet we do not have equality of opportunity. Of course, there is potential to advance the promotion of equality of opportunity. However, given the fact that billions of pounds of public money are being spent on programmes and projects during an economic downturn, we can still promote equality of opportunity regardless of whether we have economic prosperity. That statement is not even suggesting or stating that fact. Therefore, it should be retracted. Alternatively, it could be elaborated on and explained, but it should certainly not stay as it is.

1960. Mr B Collins: What we have said, we have said, and I do not propose to edit that here. Quod scripsimus, scripsimus, as Pontius Pilate might have said.

1961. The alternative reading is that equality of opportunity and economic prosperity inhabit separate universes, do not interconnect and have no mutual relationship. I do not think that that is true, and the point, as I said, is that even in circumstances of economic downturn, equality of opportunity has to be protected and regarded. That is because, first, we have a statutory obligation, and, secondly, because that is the right thing to do. We could spend a great deal of time discussing that sentence without any product.

1962. The Chairperson: Questions have been posed and clarification sought. You have confirmed the position of your organisation.

1963. Ms Morrice: I thank the member for raising this issue, because I believe that there is a misunderstanding, and it is useful and valuable that we have clarification. It is important that the issue is clear, and that is definitely what we want to happen. The misunderstanding is based on the fact that one cannot have healthy, balanced economic growth without equality. That is what that statement is saying. That is turning the statement round into how we wanted to say it. I hope that that is clear, and that is exactly where we stand.

1964. Mrs D Kelly: I apologise for arriving too late to hear what Martina was saying, and I was not sure about the gist of her argument. Equality of opportunity is available to all under the legislation, unless there is some sort of communist-type policy whereby it is a free-for-all and everyone should have the same wage and living standard. We want everyone to prosper. Surely equality of opportunity means that anybody can apply for a service or a job based on meeting the criteria.

1965. Mr Spratt: Except if they work for the Equality Commission, of course.

1966. Mrs D Kelly: They can still apply.

1967. Ms Evelyn Collins (Equality Commission for Northern Ireland): The point that we were referring to is elaborated in paragraphs 17 and 18 of the submission, which focus on the resonance between the Programme for Government’s expressed recognition that we can not grow the economy in isolation from determined efforts to transform society and enhance our environment and a commitment to use that increased prosperity and economic growth to tackle social disadvantage and build an inclusive and stable society. That commitment very much mirrors the European Union’s approach over many years that economic growth has to go hand in hand with social progress. That helps to clarify the original statement that we made in paragraph 9. The twin commitment at the European Union level, which is matched in the Programme for Government, runs throughout the document.

1968. Ms Anderson: But I think, Chair, just —

1969. The Chairperson: Sorry, to be fair, we have given that point more time than is reasonable and other members wish to ask questions.

1970. Mr Shannon: I do not want to see the Sinn Féin utopia in which everybody gets paid the same wage: the deputy First Minister, the driver of the car and everyone else. That is illogical. People get paid for their jobs according to their capabilities, the status of the job, and so on.

1971. Ms Anderson: We are proud of what we do.

1972. Mr Shannon: For the record, as somebody else mentioned earlier, I support the comments made by the Equality Commission and am very pleased to see them in the submission. Mr Collins, in my opinion, what you have put in the submission is a statement of fact. Economic prosperity and equality of opportunity are mutually interdependent. Therefore, you have not said anything that is not true, and it is very unfair to even suggest that.

1973. We have a comparative peace, which we hope to build upon, and it is important that everyone can feed into that. Harmonious relations come off the back of a good economy and job opportunities. [Interruption.]

1974. The Chairperson: Order, please.

1975. Mr Shannon: I wanted to make that statement because other members have made statements, so I feel that we should be able to do likewise.

1976. Ms Anderson: Is that the royal we?

1977. The Chairperson: The long-suffering Chairman would not prevent anybody from making statements.

1978. Mr Shannon: He is very long-suffering and he is very gracious.

1979. One of the statements in your submission mentioned the needs and concerns of Northern Ireland and its people, and it made reference to the fact that those are reflected in the UK’s policies on European engagement. It also referred to the institutions of Government and the Assembly in Northern Ireland being fully aware of the significance of European Union membership. It then went on to refer to the regions. Do you believe that anything more could be done at this time to ensure that Northern Ireland, as a region within the United Kingdom, improves its relationships in Europe for the betterment of the people that we represent?

1980. Mr B Collins: I hesitate to stray much beyond the boundaries of what the statutes tell us we are supposed to be in existence to do. However, there are real opportunities for deepening the relationships between Northern Ireland and the European Union. Some of those have been addressed in the Barroso task force report and in the Executive’s action plan in response to that. There are potential areas within the structures of the United Kingdom for the Executive and the Assembly to work together with the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales in such a way as to influence the articulation of UK policy on the European Union. For obvious reasons, that has tended to be driven from London. Consideration needs to be given about issues in Northern Ireland, such as equality and discrimination, and others that touch on all aspects of the lives of people who live in Northern Ireland. Opportunities exist to influence the way in which UK policy towards Europe is developed.

1981. Clear opportunities are also afforded by the east-west relationships that were developed in the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement, through which Ireland and the UK, as well as the various constituent elements in the UK, have opportunities to shape an approach to the development of European policy.

1982. Furthermore, clear areas exist in which Northern Ireland has a significant contribution to make to the development of European policy that derive from its experience and practice; for example, in the operation of the devolved Administration and a whole range of policy areas. The totality of wisdom about the developments that have taken place in Northern Ireland does not reside in London, Dublin, Washington or Brussels. Northern Ireland has real experience that could be relevant to other parts of the European Union and to the development of EU policy across a whole range of areas. Engagement by the Assembly and by a Committee of the Assembly will provide an opportunity to give life to those issues. That is why it is important that this Committee is devoting this kind of attention to the question of the relationship with Europe.

1983. There is a broader question, which is certainly beyond the remit of the Equality Commission, but one has a view, about the extent to which the public appreciates the significance of the European Union, the issue of the shaping of policy and the centrality of the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the European Union. That is an area of discussion for another day.

1984. Mrs Long: Thank you for the presentation and the written submission. I also read the document, although I read it slightly differently. I took from it that there was a synergy to be achieved from having in place good relations, equality and human-rights laws, and that there was benefits from all three working in collaboration. In the same way, if there are robust policies on equality, good relations and human rights, it also benefits the economy. That is not to say that the economy cannot be grown without those robust policies, but if that is done it will become an unbalanced and unstable economy, and there will be serious issues concerning how to maximise the benefits for everyone, and support those who are not benefiting.

1985. The Chairperson: Is that your statement over?

1986. Mrs Long: It is, you will be glad to hear. I keep it concise.

1987. You highlighted the influence that the European Union has had through legislative measures, action programmes, and so on. To what degree does the Equality Commission monitor what is happening in Europe to get an early warning on legislative developments, the equality agenda, and other issues that are likely to arise in future years? Also, to what degree are you reliant on the Assembly or the Executive to do that scoping work?

1988. Finally, in what way do you think that the processes of flagging up issues that will be dealt with in the future and smoothing factors such as transposition could be enhanced, so that it could be done in a more effective and efficient way?

1989. Ms E Collins: The Equality Commission recognises the critical nature of European Union legislative and policy framework. We participate in a number of networks; for example, a network of the European equality bodies was established fairly recently. We share information and engage with the European Commission in particular, but also, from time to time, with the Parliament on what it is doing on equality legislation and policy. We also have representation on an advisory Committee to the European Commission on equal opportunities between women and men. That meets maybe twice a year.

1990. We share information on what is happening in Northern Ireland and gather information on what is happening at the Commission. We can then feed that back into our own work, so that, when mapping the landscape of how we see issues developing, we take into account not only what comes from Northern Ireland through the Programme for Government, for example, but what is likely to be in place at the European Union level.

1991. Of course, we also have ongoing dialogue with officials from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, who likewise monitor what is happening at a European level, and try to anticipate what changes will need to be made, for example, in respect of equality legislation by dint of the European Commission framework.

1992. We also, from time to time, look in advance at communications from the Commission — as they arise — that examine, for example, the future of non-discrimination and equality in the European Union. One such communication was published in July 2008. We fed into it as it was being consulted on throughout Europe. It concluded that although much has been achieved, much remains to be done. It focused its attention on two main strands, one of which examined the legislative framework. It concluded that more needed to be done to ensure effective transposition in member states of existing directives, and that it would bring forward a new directive to consider protection against discrimination in respect of the provision of goods, facilities and services on the grounds of age, religion, sexual orientation and race. Work is ongoing on that.

1993. It also said that in addition to the legislative framework, further action must be taken on non-legislative measures, particularly mainstreaming equality. Of course, our work on section 75 is of interest to the European Commission as it develops its thinking on mainstreaming. It is particularly interested in positive action, promoting diversity as a valuable business tool, and a range of other non-legislative measures. We had input in dealing with that.

1994. In our planning, we examined and recognised what such an instrument for communication could set out. We are aware that the gender road map, which I know that the Committee has discussed with other witnesses, is due to be completed in 2010. Work is ongoing to prepare a subsequent gender road map. We will have influence on that as well as notice.

1995. To make it more efficient and effective, good communication must take place between the range of parties who have a role to play in enhancing our understanding of the European Union and its role here. Our submission refers to one concrete example of that which is, clearly, that the Assembly can and should have a clear role in debating and scrutinising European issues that are particularly relevant to Northern Ireland.

1996. The directive that was announced in the communication on non-discrimination and equality in 2008 is, as of yesterday, the subject of public consultation in the UK by the Government Equalities Office. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which has particular responsibility for equality legislation, could make submissions to ensure that its views are heard in the UK context and that they feed directly into the European Commission through MEPs or other contacts that you have. Therefore, there is a range of ways to enhance communication. Looking for opportunities to influence can be brought to bear.

1997. Mrs Long: We tend to think of Europe as somewhere that sends legislation; however, nobody ever really thinks about from where it comes. It actually comes from other member states when they raise issues. As regards good practice in the Northern Ireland context, when, perhaps, matters have been developed further than they have in other European states, do you believe that more can be done to feed that good practice in, so that we become contributors, if you like, in Europe, rather than simply recipients?

1998. Ms E Collins: I know that Jane wants to respond to that point. It is clear from our work with Equinet that people are interested in our unique tools and in how we operate here. We have generated much interest through speaking at conferences and from information that has been sought through Equinet. I would not call it an early warning system. However, a system is in place whereby if another member state seeks particular information from those of us who have had longer experience of equality legislation and have taken a certain case, for example, under gender discrimination law or other discrimination law, we can feed that in. Therefore, there is certainly recognition that Northern Ireland can contribute much to, as well as learn from, other member states.

1999. Ms Morrice: I want to reiterate the point that Evelyn made. With the directive coming forward, there is an opportunity for the Committee to get involved, scrutinise and to put forward a submission on it. Two examples of best practice spring to mind, the first of which is agriculture. Farmers are well aware of how to use their influence through lobbying and using their unions to influence legislation. That is important.

2000. The second example is of best practice in a regional area, namely Scotland. It is very good at getting in on the act. Obviously, Ireland is, too, although Scotland, as a region, has been doing it for a long time and has done much work.

2001. My role in the European Economic and Social Committee is useful for the Equality Commission because I get early, advance warning of legislation that comes through. As part of my role on the Committee’s Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship Unit (SOC), I ask the Equality Commission to feed into opinion on European legislation so that it can make its voice heard at an early stage.

2002. The Chairperson: I think that the president and the chief executive of the Ulster Farmers’ Union were particularly interested in your last comment. They are seated behind you. [Laughter.]

2003. Mr B Collins: If the farmers are behind you, you are all right. [Laughter.]

2004. The Chairperson: I could say more, but I will not.

2005. Mr McElduff: I interpreted the words in paragraph 9 in the same way that Martina did. I reassert the fact that equality of opportunity is paramount in any economic conditions. We have an issue with the wording of paragraph 9, and Jane said that it may have been a misunderstanding.

2006. Paragraph 15 states that the EU funding programmes have contributed to “mainstreaming equality of opportunity". How has that happened, and are there any specific examples?

2007. Mr B Collins: One of the critical points in paragraph 15 is that:

“the Assembly has a clear role in ensuring that equality is mainstreamed in future funding programmes or similar support activities."

2008. The structural funding programmes that are operated through the European social fund and the European regional development fund have introduced equality as one of the cross-cutting measures to be taken into account. That is important, because it recognises equality as part of the social objective of the programmes that are supported by both European funds and matching funds from this jurisdiction.

2009. Monitoring of the groups that are in involved in and benefit from the distribution of those funds gives a real indication of the extent to which equality of opportunity is reflected in the outcomes that ultimately flow from the deployment of those funds. There is real potential, and there will be even greater potential in the future. One can already point to a significant plus in the fact that equality was one of the cross-cutting core themes in the most recent round of applications.

2010. Mr Spratt: The paper that you submitted to the Committee reiterates your general duties. The Equality Commission has a track record of discriminating against one side of the community. Have your employment practices improved since the last time that you appeared before the Committee?

2011. The Chairperson: Order.

2012. Mr Spratt: Sorry —

2013. The Chairperson: Order. We are considering European issues.

2014. Mr Spratt: Yes, but there is a paper in front of us that restates the principles and duties of the Equality Commission and deals with European issues. I am quite at liberty to ask a question about that organisation’s employment record, given that it has worsened in each of the past five years. The representatives were questioned about that on their previous visit, but they now return to lecture us on equality. I am now asking a simple question: has equality improved within the organisation — yes or no?

2015. Mr B Collins: The simple answer to that, Chairman, is that we are here to discuss the Committee’s work on European issues. We were here a relatively short time ago, and we had a number of exchanges with Mr Spratt on that occasion. It is better to focus on the subject that you invited us here to discuss.

2016. Mr Spratt: I take that answer as a no, and that the organisation’s employment record has not changed and that it is still discriminating. [Interruption.]

2017. The Chairperson: Order.

2018. Mr B Collins: For the avoidance of any doubt on the part of any member of the Committee, let me add to my previous response. The Equality Commission does not discriminate against anyone. The Equality Commission observes the law. I recognise elected representatives’ entitlement to express their views, but I am not going to be a doormat for anyone. I do not propose to remain here for that kind of comment to be made. I respect the Committee and its work, and we are happy to be here to talk to you about the subject that we were invited here to talk about. I propose to say nothing beyond what I said already, other than to reiterate that we do not discriminate against anyone. I will not allow that charge to be made.

2019. Mr Spratt: It is obviously a very sore point.

2020. The Chairperson: Order. I ask everyone to respect the Chair, if not the person in the Chair. Mr Spratt asked a question, as he is legitimately entitled to do, and we received a response. I consider the matter to be dealt with.

2021. There are no further questions. I thank the witnesses for their attendance. If there is any additional information that you wish to provide for us about our inquiry into European issues, we will happy to receive it. It may well be that we will seek clarification on other points. I hope that everyone feels that they are respected by the Committee.

2022. Mr B Collins: We are happy to have attended and we are at the Committee’s disposal if it needs any further information from us.

H1>6 May 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witness:

Dr Ian Duncan

Office of the Scottish Parliament in Brussels

2023. The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy): Today’s first evidence session on our consideration of EU issues is with Dr Ian Duncan from the Office of the Scottish Parliament in Brussels. The Committee Clerk’s brief and Dr Duncan’s written submission are included in the members’ packs. I welcome Dr Duncan; thank you for joining us. I invite you to make your presentation and to leave yourself available for questions.

2024. Dr Ian Duncan (Office of the Scottish Parliament in Brussels): Thank you for inviting me. I have provided the Committee with a comprehensive submission about how my office in Brussels works. I will not talk much more about that as members can read it at their leisure. I want to talk briefly about the three Is — intelligence, influence and impact. Basically, that is what Brussels is all about.

2025. Intelligence is at the heart of the whole issue. To be able to make correct decisions and for the job to work well, it is important to be in possession of all the information possible. Intelligence is required to hold an Executive to account; to influence the development of policy; and to be able to seek improvements for constituents.

2026. There is a suggestion that Brussels is very much a closed shop; however, it is not. There is plenty of intelligence out there and it is possible to get it if the right people are asked. It is important to have someone on the ground who knows who the right people are. Simply dipping in and out does not work well. It is important to have someone who can talk knowledgeably about what you guys are looking for. It is possible to get information by reading the ‘Financial Times’, or ‘The Economist’, or by logging on to any number of websites, but what you really want is someone who understands your needs and can tune into what is being said about policy developments in particular areas.

2027. You will be surprised by how easy it is to gather information. At present, you might get pieces of information from Departments, newspapers, members of the European Parliament, or members of the Committee of the Regions. You might get bits and pieces of information, but what you are really looking for is the framework into which that can fit. In my paper, I outlined some of the ideas about how that would actually work. It is primarily based on the Commission’s annual work programme, which sets out what it will be doing in the year ahead. That work programme provides a perfect opportunity for a Committee such as this to consider the important issues that will impact on Northern Ireland. Therefore, intelligence is the first stage.

2028. The second stage is influence. There is no point in having lots of information if you do not do anything with it, because you might as well have no information. You must have a plan, and you must be able to try to do something with it.

2029. Influence can fall into three broad categories. First, you can seek to scrutinise the Executive branch, and, by doing so, seek to influence the development of the UK Government’s line in Europe. That is not unimportant. Secondly, through collaboration with like-minded regions or institutions, you can also seek to put forward strong points, which can be taken up by the various institutions in Europe. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, you can be the body that brings together the voices of Northern Ireland — the stakeholders. Quite often, the stakeholders are almost disenfranchised from Europe. They do not understand how it works, and there is not necessarily anyone on the ground who can help them to understand how it works.

2030. I will give an example of how the Scottish Parliament has worked in that regard. As you might imagine, fisheries are very important to Scotland, and, during the Green Paper stage — the consultation stage — of the EU maritime package, the Scottish Parliament staged a stakeholder conference. It brought together approximately 300 stakeholders from various areas of Scotland, including the coastal communities, as well as people with fishing interests and maritime interests. It also brought together people from the European Commission and from the European Parliament. There was a whole day of discussions, at the end of which a report was put together that outlined some of the issues that were discussed. That report went straight to the Commission as part of the Scottish Parliament’s response.

2031. The Scottish Parliament also staged a seminar in Brussels and invited the key players to come along to listen to some of the points being outlined, which brings me to my third point — impact. The seminar resulted in changes to the proposals. That is important, because influence is measured only by what is actually achieved at the end of the process. The futility of issues can often be exhausting and frustrating. However, a difference can be made — not all the time, but sometimes.

2032. Therefore, the three Is are important: intelligence tailored to your needs to help you to do your job better; influence, which can be directed in particular directions; and, ultimately, achieving an impact, because that is what you are here for. Ultimately, that is what you want from Brussels, because that is what makes Europe work well.

2033. The Chairperson: Thank you. That was very concise and very good.

2034. The Scottish Parliament is now considered to be among the more successful devolved legislatures on European issues. Is that your assessment of it, or are there any other countries or localities that you seek to emulate?

2035. Dr Duncan: I like to think of myself as a model, but I am not sure that everyone agrees with that.

2036. The Chairperson: Your wife is not here. [Laughter.]

2037. Dr Duncan: There are lots of regional representatives that are generally from local authorities or local bodies that seek funding, which is the principal regional focus. However, the Scottish Parliament has one of the few regional Parliament offices in Brussels, and it is probably one of the first to be successful.

2038. If a regional Government is responsible for certain European transposition or enforcement aspects, a separate source of information is needed to hold the Executive to account. The three points of that particular triangle are the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and the European institutions and their developments. That should be a model for any regional Parliament and regional Government.

2039. Without that, generally speaking, we would have to rely on the regional Government to provide all the information that would then be used to try to scrutinise them. They will not provide information that is not very nice. That is not to say that the Government will try to hide something, but there can certainly be times when using independent sources provides the intelligence to ask the right questions of the right people. Many of the regional Governments will always have someone who is responsible for parliamentary issues, but I am not certain that that is the best way to provide a service to a regional Parliament.

2040. Mr Molloy: Thank you for the presentation. What help and support to you receive from the MEPs from Scotland? Also, what influence do you have with the British Government on forthcoming European resolutions?

2041. Dr Duncan: Those are very good questions. Scotland has seven MEPs, and I have regular contact with them. The MEPs seek to sit on Committees that are of most interest to Scotland, so they tend to focus on fisheries, regional development, energy and industry, and sometimes finance. I generally meet them on a fortnightly basis. I also meet their support staff, which is important because I get a lot longer with them and I get a real feel for what the Members are up to. That really helps me to then get a feel for what is developing at that stage.

2042. Equally important is the fact that those MEPs can often be an introduction to MEPs who are from similar parties but not from Scotland. The seven Scottish MEPs cannot possibly sit on every important Committee. Therefore, it is important for them to have the network to spread out and gather the intelligence. A good working relationship with the support staff means that it is possible to get five minutes with an MEP when it is required. It also means that they can often provide relevant information, so that rapport can be very useful.

2043. The United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the European Union (UKRep) is good. That body is well tuned in to what is going on and it has a significant staff. It produces good briefings for MEPs and for consumption by home Departments. That information can be invaluable in gaining a full understanding of what is developing. It is equally important to understand where the British position is at variance with our regional position in the UK, because that would help you to scrutinise your Executive, if you are so minded. It also gives a feel for what is likely to happen next, which can be important.

2044. Britain has a good team in Brussels, and it works effectively. Its primary role is to represent the UK Government. It is not always its role to articulate the views of any particular regional body. It is important to understand that distinction.

2045. The Chairperson: Are you suggesting that it is purely English focused?

2046. Dr Duncan: No. As regards population, if nothing else, England is a bigger constituent member than the rest of the UK. Often the real test occurs during discussions about whether it should be a regional representative or a UK representative who sits at the table at the Council and who speaks on behalf of the UK. To some degree, that is a moot point, because the UK position is normally haggled and fought over in London. In arriving at an agreed UK position, each of the devolved legislatures makes its contribution, and any required tidying up is done in London. Across the Channel in Brussels, that position is articulated by the UK Government. Although the English position may, at times, be stronger, the adopted position is not purely focused on England. I suspect that, on fisheries, for example, it could be argued that the UK’s position is more focused on Scotland. On other issues, the UK’s position may focus on another region.

2047. The tension arises when there are different views within each legislature, and it would be fascinating to understand what happens in such cases. I am afraid that I do not get to sit inside the room in which those tensions are aired, but that is where I would want to be. I mention that in passing purely because it is interesting.

2048. Mr Elliott: Thank you for your presentation. I note from your submission that you are the sole permanent appointee. Surely the amount of work that is required with the amount of legislation, regulations, directives, and the huge build-up to all those, makes that an onerous task. I note that you correspond directly with the Committees, rather than with the Government or individual MEPs. Do you recommend what issues they should consider and subsequently follow them through? Or, do they make recommendations to you?

2049. Dr Duncan: You are spot on — I am limited in what I can do because I work alone. When I go to the toilet, nothing can happen in the office because there no one else there, and that is a problem. I have to keep my material focused and deliverable so that I do not let down my Parliament. I try to use the Commission’s work programme to gauge what is likely to happen over the next 12 months. It is essential that I know about the impending issues.

2050. The work programme sets out both legislative and non-legislative business, and it is important to recognise the difference between them. People often get excited by the non-legislative elements of the work programme. However, non-legislative business can be taken on board as interesting, but it is not as important as a regulation or a directive. It is possible, therefore, to construct a triage of what is likely to be important to a sitting Member of a regional Assembly.

2051. I produce a document on the Commission’s work programme and analyse its potential importance to Scotland. I set out my reasoning for that and outline a timescale, because some issues are much further away than others. I give that information to the European and External Relations Committee, which disseminates it to the relevant Committees according to the subject matter. After their informal or formal consideration of a particular issue, it comes back to me. From the entire year’s worth of material that is likely to be undertaken by the Commission, the Committees prioritise the issues. Within those, I tend to select priority areas at a macro-level, underneath which are the particular legislative developments on which I must also focus. At present, the top-level priorities on which I am focusing include rural affairs, justice and energy. I must be aware, and on top, of almost anything that is happening in those areas.

2052. At any given time, approximately 30 proposals are working their way through the European institutions. I ensure that I am on top of those proposals and provide feedback to the Committees. I try to identify what developments there will be in three months’ time, or which proposal is unlikely to be accepted because it is unpopular. In such cases, I can advise the relevant Committee to relax slightly. That involves an element of forecasting.

2053. I try to ensure that the Committees are in a position to work out their own work programmes. As you know, Committees are constantly busy, and it is difficult to find time to focus on European issues. Therefore, the forecasting element of my role is important. I produce a fortnightly bulletin so that every Committee knows what issues are unfolding. That bulletin often sets alarm bells ringing, and a Committee may ask when certain material will come before it and what shape it will take. A Committee may also express concern about a particular issue and commission more detailed work from me.

2054. However, it is important to have structure. It is impossible for one person to be on top of everything all the time. I have to try to introduce an element of triage to recognise the key issues and spend most of my time working on those. I also have to recognise other issues that I will not be able to spend as much time on.

2055. It is also important to put the onus back on the Committees to get them to recognise the time constraints, and to tell me when their views have changed. Ultimately, it is the Committee’s responsibility to read the information that I send, and to take decisions. I can provide only the intelligence; the Committees must guide me. Such responsibility falls on Committees such as this one to do that.

2056. Mr Elliott: Do you feel that it is beneficial to be in Brussels as a representative of the Scottish Parliament, or would it be more beneficial working with extra resources in the Scottish Government group?

2057. Dr Duncan: When my post was discussed, the Scottish Government were very suspicious. They were fearful that the Parliament were putting a spy in Brussels, who would basically snoop about to find out what they were up to.

2058. The Chairperson: Steady now. You do not want to unnerve people. [Laughter.]

2059. Dr Duncan: You can understand immediately why they would be concerned, because the role involves paying attention to what they were up to. In reality, a lot of collaboration will be involved.

2060. The issues that a Government will be interested in, as they try to put forward their own domestic initiatives, programmes and European ideas, are often quite different from what Committees will want to do. For example, a Government may not always respond to a consultation. However, a parliamentary Committee may be very curious about that, and may want to consult stakeholders.

2061. It is often the Parliament’s engagement on such issues that increases Government activity. For example, it was clear up until quite late in the day that the Scottish Government were not going to offer a response to the consultation on maritime issues until the Scottish Parliament started to take a very active interest. There was then a recognition that the Scottish Government should respond directly, and they did so. The Scottish Parliament’s activity in that area moved the Government in that direction, which is not uncommon.

2062. Mrs Long: Thank you for your presentation; it has been very useful. I want to probe further on Tom Elliott’s question. You mentioned a degree of collaborative working, but to retain credibility, you need to be able to maintain your independence. How do you do that when you are the only person who works in an office that is housed in a larger building that incorporates the rest of the Scottish Departments?

2063. Your written submission mentioned how your work plan is formalised. Will you give us more detail about that? Is it done by a formal vote in the Scottish Parliament? Do you collate Committee responses and then draw up the work programme? Who approves the programme? Finally, what processes are involved in drawing up your annual work plan?

2064. Dr Duncan: The question of my independence is important. A Government will generally have a view on an issue, whereas the other parties in the Parliament will often have a different view. I am rarely ever in a position to genuinely represent the view of the Parliament as a whole.

2065. More often than not, my role is to beaver away and find out information. I rarely put my head above the parapet and say that the Scottish Parliament now has one view on an issue. The Scottish Government, on the other hand, will quite often be in that position. Ministers will come out to Brussels to state just that. Therefore, immediately, there is a distinction in how I operate.

2066. Importantly, my relationship with the people in Scotland House — the Scottish Government representatives and in the representatives of the various Scottish agencies — is based on personal rapport. It is important to have a representative in Brussels who can network. If someone cannot network, he or she might as well not be there. It is about developing a rapport with the right people at the right time. Being able to do so over a period of time will mean that at a later date, it is possible to simply make a telephone call and get information immediately. It takes time to establish such relationships.

2067. In my first few months in the job, I found that very difficult. I thought that everyone was keeping secrets. However, it was difficult simply because no one knew me. Upon getting to know people and how they work, it was then possible for me to begin to develop a network that enabled me to function.

2068. It is important to be careful with such relationships, because a lot of trading goes on, especially with pieces of intelligence. Any officers in Brussels need to be discreet. If they are not, they will get into bother and the Department will chastise them.

2069. The European and External Relations Committee conducts a consultation on the Commission’s work programme, and my analysis document accompanies that. That consultation involves the Committees of the Scottish Parliament and stakeholders, who may or may not share an interest. That information is then brought back to the clerking team of the European and External Relations Committee, and we synthesise it so that we have a programme that I can deliver.

2070. My line managers have to be realistic; there is no point attaching equal priority to 74 issues, because that will not work. Given that there is only one officer in Brussels, management must step in and advise against the Committees going mad on a lot of issues. Management must advise that everything cannot be done all the time and find out what is really needed. That is done informally. If a Committee were to express an interest in a lot of issues, I suspect that informal discussions would take place to find out which of those they really need, given that they have the time of only one officer. Formal and informal processes are involved.

2071. The role of stakeholders can be interesting, because it is not only what is contained in my analysis that can be included in my work programme. A document is issued, so it is up to the readers of that document to say that a point has been missed or to query an issue that was included. Therefore, I have to ensure that what I have said is justifiable. Equally, however, I sometimes have to recognise that people may highlight an issue that I had not noticed, was not aware of, or that I had not recognised as important. I must be sensitive to that, but, ultimately, the document is developed primarily by the Clerk of the European and External Relations Committee and me, having had the earlier involvement of the Committees and stakeholders.

2072. Ms Anderson: When this Committee visited the European and External Relations Committee in Scotland a few months, the five areas that were prioritised were discussed. I was left with the impression that it was still assessing the impact and the outworkings of that. At that stage, the priorities were relatively new. What is your view of the five areas that were prioritised? Were those the best areas, and how is that working with the roles of each of the Committees? Is there an overarching Committee that considers that?

2073. Dr Duncan: Two distinctions need to be considered on that issue. This year is different because of the European election and a change in the Commission. The areas that were highlighted this year are slightly different to those that would normally be the case, simply because this is not a standard year.

2074. The broad headings are important because they provide me with scope to develop and explore. If I had a work programme that was purely restrictive, there would be complexities that would involve my having to go back to a Committee to tell it that a new issue had emerged and to ask its members whether it was of interest to them. The broad headings allow me the discretion to explore other issues that may not necessarily have been detailed in the initial document.

2075. For example, you may be aware of the European economic recovery plan, through which a significant component of funding is available for energy projects. That was not in place when I wrote the paper in November 2008, but it is now the only show in town when it comes to energy discussions. Therefore, I have to allow greater flexibility in how I approach that issue. Another of the five issues — that of justice — has been much quieter. My work on that has mostly been about tying up loose ends.

2076. The creation of the headlines is fluid and flexible enough to give me discretion, albeit with constraints, to ensure that nothing that is clearly going to be important ever drops off the of the page. That makes sense, but everything that is set out for legislative development must be done clearly, and I have to follow those issues through.

2077. The last plenary session of the European Parliament before the elections will take place this week. A number of issues will be brought to a close, but others will not and will fall. I need to ensure that, when I report back to the European and External Relations Committee in a fortnight, I detail what has happened and what has not happened. The flexibility in the headline issues allows discretion to be applied and to deliver against the issues that had been clearly set out at the beginning and in which the Committee had displayed an interest.

2078. Committees are perfectly at liberty to ask for more information on an issue that has arisen about which they were previously unaware. An example of that might be the ongoing interest of the European Commission into how Scottish ferries are subsidised and supported. That is an ongoing investigation that was not listed in the Commission’s work programme. One of the Committees wanted to know what was happening in that investigation and asked to be kept up to date. They were able to send me an email asking for information. That investigation then became part of my ongoing work programme, and I am obliged to report back when I find out more about it.

2079. Mr Shannon: Your journey through Europe has been an interesting one. You were not sure whether you were a spy. We are all intrigued by how Europe works; to be honest, I am not sure whether decisions are made because they are right or because there is a search for a compromise between what you are trying to achieve and what someone else wants. You mentioned fisheries in particular, and we are aware that Scotland has established its priorities in Europe. Do you feel that your role in Europe has benefited the fishing industry, or do you feel that, if you had no role, the impact would have been worse? Do you feel that you have made a difference?

2080. Dr Duncan: You ask about the impact of my role in Brussels, but the question should be about the impact of the Scottish Parliament in Brussels. I am, in effect, an intelligence gatherer — a spy of some sort, but more obvious in other regards.

2081. Mr Shannon: You are either a spy or a model. [Laughter.]

2082. Dr Duncan: There are bits of James Bond all over here. [Laughter.]

2083. The Chairperson: People are beginning to shift uncomfortably here. [Laughter.]

2084. Dr Duncan: The real question is whether the Scottish Parliament, through my office in Brussels, is able to make changes or have an impact. The answer is yes; not always in big ways, but in one respect it shortens the gap between stakeholders, constituents and Europe. To anyone who is based in any part of Europe, Brussels seems far away, bureaucratic, confusing and disconnected from them.

2085. By emphasising aspects of European policy development and giving it a human face, the Scottish Parliament has shortened that gap. In that sense, it has been very successful. For example, it has helped certain fishing interests to appreciate what the process is, to understand how it works and where its shortcomings might be, and to outline how the process can be improved. Members will be aware that the Common Fisheries Policy is about to undergo a revision, which is out for consultation. The Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs and Environment Committee came to Brussels two weeks ago to talk to the right people about what is going on and what will happen next. In drawing its conclusions, the Committee can help stakeholders to understand what will happen next and it can articulate that position.

2086. The bigger question about whether the Scottish Parliament has an influence on policy is a good one. The flip side of that is, if they did not, would anyone notice? The Parliament is often at its most successful in the early stages of policy development when it cannot be seen. The feeding of material into the Commission’s thoughts on maritime issues was done at an early enough stage, with the result that no one noticed because there was no statement of intent from the Commission or the Scottish Parliament. There was no public confrontation; it was a much more consensual process, because it was done at such an early stage. Anyone who seeks to have an influence on events is going to be more successful at the early stages, when any sort of confrontation can be avoided. That is a harder situation to assess, and I suspect that I am not necessarily best placed to assess it.

2087. From what I have witnessed, Scotland has punched above its weight as a Government and as a regional Parliament, simply because it is in Europe and is engaging with the key players. It also helps the stakeholders back in the homeland who are more aware, are learning more and have an appreciation of the workings in a more sensible fashion. There is value to the presence in Europe.

2088. Mr Shannon: Would you have greater influence if you were to work with other regions, such as Northern Ireland or Wales? On fishing matters, you would probably find more common areas of interest with Northern Ireland, because much of what will impact on Scotland will also impact on us here. Could we improve on such co-operation?

2089. Dr Duncan: Spot on, that is exactly right. Any region is just a small part of a member state, let alone a very small part of Europe. Regions are stronger when they co-operate on areas of common interest, and the greater the number of regions that share those common interests, the louder becomes the choir and the greater the chance that those voices will be recognised by the Commission. There is no doubt that the more that various regions share areas of common interest, the more that the Commission is interested.

2090. If just one region raises an issue, although the Commission will notice, it may dismiss what was raised. However, if two, three, five or more regions clearly articulate common views, the Commission cannot brush them aside so lightly. That is particularly true, for example, if those regions’ common views are not shared by the relevant member state. The Commission will always listen to a member state — that is the way that the EU works — but if regions have a view at variance to that of the member state of which they are a part, although more work and collaboration is required at earlier stages, the view could be articulated more comfortably by the method that you described. In addition, the rapport that is built between like-minded regions of a similar size and with similar industries makes a huge difference.

2091. The Chairperson: Is there not, however, a competitive edge to be gained at various stages by the approach taken by each region or devolved institution?

2092. Dr Duncan: That may be true, particularly if money is involved. For example, if regions are seeking to secure a bigger share of the regional development fund or the structural fund, they may be less willing to collaborate openly. However, I suspect that Governments of member states, rather than the devolved institutions, would adopt such a role. Broadly speaking, for most policy areas, there should not be, and probably is not, quite the same competitive edge to be gained. When there is, the relevant regions will no doubt learn about it quickly.

2093. Mrs D Kelly: One of the challenges, especially during this European election campaign, is how best to get the message across to citizens. Is part of your role to advise on best practice elsewhere, and are some European nations better at that than others?

2094. Dr Duncan: Yes, some countries are better at it than others. Some countries play the European game very well, and some do not. I shall not be specific, but, to answer your question discreetly, looking at the countries that are the major recipients of funding usually results in being able to work out who is good at playing the game. Many member states are sometimes guilty of —

2095. The Chairperson: Your spying is paying off. [Laughter.]

2096. Dr Duncan: I am trying to pass under the radar. A number of member states are guilty of using the EU as something to kick around and blame for what is going on. Indeed, I suspect that all member states are guilty of that from time to time.

2097. One of the big, and straightforward, difficulties that we encounter is that election turnouts tend to be high only if people are interested in a particular topic. The test for the forthcoming European election will be whether the turnout is high. I suspect that it probably will not be in most of the UK regions. It may be higher in Ireland than otherwise might have been the case, for reasons of which we are all aware.

2098. My role is distinct. My office is responsible for gathering intelligence. Although the event that is due take place in the Scottish Parliament tomorrow is an example of regional collaboration, it will also raise the profile of regional Parliaments. Such gatherings can be useful, but, more often than not, they are specialist, rather than generalist, events.

2099. Sometimes, the Commission and the European Parliament are guilty of not being the best at advocating themselves. They often do not manage to present themselves in a way that cuts through the cloudiness and opacity of what is going on. You will notice that the EU attempts to raise the profile of certain issues to remind people of its benefits. For example, mobile-phone roaming charges are suddenly being spoken about a lot more because most people now have a mobile phone, therefore, the assumption is that the EU has taken a good measure; therefore, the EU is good.

2100. Although the EU’s attempts to push its headline achievements can be useful, sometimes they can be a bit of a distraction, because if the biggest measure that the EU took in the past four years was cutting mobile roaming charges, I am not sure that that would represent value for money. To give it credit, it has done an awful lot more good than that. Therefore, pushing such headlines may mean that it is doing itself a disservice.

2101. Mrs D Kelly: You referred obliquely to the Lisbon Treaty. What assessment, if any, have you made of its impact on Scotland?

2102. Dr Duncan: The European and External Relations Committee has taken an active interest in the impact of the Lisbon Treaty, and it began an inquiry, which was put on hold because it was not certain where the treaty was leading. That was probably right, as that is still uncertain. Recognising its limited resources, the Scottish Parliament decided not to invest a lot of time in pursuing the matter further. If it is ratified, it will have a huge impact on Scotland and all of Europe. Issues that we already spoke about, for example, fisheries and agriculture, will move from being issues of unanimity to issues of co-decision, which will mean that Members of the European Parliament will have a much bigger say in those developments. The impact will be significant. I suspect that when the issues become clearer in Ireland, the Scottish Parliament will finalise its inquiry. However, if they do not become clear, it may not.

2103. The Chairperson: Without being unduly nosey or personal, were you seconded from the Civil Service? How was your post advertised and your appointment made?

2104. Dr Duncan: I was an external appointee. Prior to doing this job, I worked for the Scottish Refugee Council, before that I worked for the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, and before that I spent some time working for BP. Each of those roles had an external public affairs aspect. The fisheries role, in particular, brought me to Brussels a lot. I was an external appointee into the parliamentary service itself.

2105. Other UK legislatures have different appointment processes. The House of Commons and the House of Lords rotate officers from their clerking teams. You may be aware that the Welsh Assembly has someone from its research service who fulfils that function and who will then return. I do not think that I will be rotating, because mine was a slightly unusual appointment and there is not a lot of space back in the Scottish Parliament for me to fall into.

2106. The Chairperson: The other issue is the tension that exists, or could exist, between you as a representative of the Parliament, and the Scottish Government, particularly the Scottish governing party at any given time. Have you encountered much of that?

2107. Dr Duncan: No. There is a potential for tension, but that tension will always have its genesis in Edinburgh when a Committee in the Parliament may be particularly anxious about something that the Government are doing. To some degree, I am protected from that sort of tension by being in Brussels. However, if I were not doing my job well, and if I did not have good rapport with the Scottish Government, I am sure that I could be drawn into that sort of increasing tension. Were that to happen, the doors would close around me and information would stop being available to me. To some degree, it is absolutely critical that I remain open to all the officials in the Scottish Government’s office in Brussels. Different tensions occur in Edinburgh with any change of Government. Fortunately, I am just a little bit further away from the reality and the impact of those changes.

2108. The Chairperson: Your role is that of Caesar’s wife.

2109. Dr Duncan: As well as being a spy and a model. [Laughter.]

2110. The Chairperson: That completes the questions. Thank you for the clarity of your presentation and the clarity of your answers. It strikes me that the Scottish Parliament are very fortunate to have you as their representative in Brussels. We look forward to ongoing contact with you and your office. If you wish to provide any further information, we will be happy to receive it. It may well be that we will be in contact if we have any points that need clarification. Thank you, and continue your good work.

6 May 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Clarke Black
Mr Graham Furey

Ulster Farmers’ Union

2111. The Chairperson: I welcome the president the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU), Graham Furey, and chief executive, Clarke Black. A copy of their written submission has been included in the members’ packs. The session will be recorded by Hansard for inclusion in our report. Please make an opening statement or presentation, after which members will ask questions. We anticipate that the sessions will last 30 minutes, but our experience is somewhat different.

2112. Mr Graham Furey (Ulster Farmers’ Union): I thank the Committee for the opportunity to give evidence on European issues, which are important to us.

2113. I will begin by providing some background to the UFU and what we already do in Europe. I will then ask Clarke Black to detail some specific areas. We are happy to deal with any questions that you may have or to cover any areas of evidence that we have not already addressed.

2114. The Ulster Farmers’ Union represents approximately 12,500 farming families in Northern Ireland. As well as working with the devolved Administration, we work our sister organisations in England and Wales and with representatives in Brussels. We have a lot of links, direct and indirect, with Brussels. We are involved regularly with the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Affairs, and much more so in recent years with the Directorate-General for the Environment, the Directorate-General for Regional Affairs and the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers. We are also interested in areas of European competition law.

2115. In Brussels, the UFU and its sister organisations — the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) for England and Wales and NFU Scotland — have an office with five full-time staff, which includes a director, an officer who liaises with the European Parliament and two administrative staff. We pay a subscription to that office and have a lot of contact with it. We also receive a lot of briefings at the start of policy developments from people in that office, who act as our eyes and ears in Brussels. They feed us information on any policy documents that are in their initial stages and ask for our comments. Therefore, we have a good way to influence policy at an early stage.

2116. We work closely with our three MEPs and various issues that they are involved with that link the European Parliament with the Committees on particular policy issues. We have dealt with a number of those issues over the past number of years. We have always had a very close association with all of our MEPs. We believe that they work hard out in Brussels for Northern Ireland agriculture and probably punch above their weight. We are indebted to them for the many occasions that they have got us into meetings and facilitated meetings between us and other Commission officials. We want to put that on record.

2117. We also work fairly closely with the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, which is only a stone’s thrown from the European Parliament, particularly with the representative of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), Eileen Kelly. Furthermore, we have contact with Evelyn Cummins. Again, for the size of Northern Ireland, those people are punching above their weight.

2118. The Northern Ireland Executive should perhaps have a bigger office out there — I know that it is moving, but I do not know whether that means that it will employ more personnel. We work closely with those people on a range of issues, and they are the link between the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, the permanent secretary of DARD and the Minister. I will now hand over to Clarke to deal with the specific matters on issues such as rural development. We are happy for Committee members to interrupt us to ask questions.

2119. The Chairperson: We will not encourage interruption at this stage, otherwise we will get it.

2120. Mr Clarke Black (Ulster Farmers’ Union): I will try to keep my presentation brief, because you will probably want to ask some questions. I will try to summarise what we believe the Assembly’s role is on European issues.

2121. A significant amount more could be done about the Assembly’s relationship with Europe. The role and the relationships between the Assembly and Europe have been largely abdicated to officials, so it is important that there should be a significant increase in the amount of direct contact between the Assembly and Europe.

2122. We understand some of the difficulties, in that Northern Ireland is a region of a member state as opposed to having direct representation, and we certainly sometimes look with envy at the access given to our colleagues in the Republic of Ireland. We could give a lot more specific examples, and we have given you some of them on how regulation is simply being adopted and implemented rather than being shaped. Anyone who works in the European system will know that the implementation of regulation is a long process and takes several years, but also th