Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 20 November 2000 (continued)
I am therefore commissioning a major scoping study in conjunction with the Scotland and Northern Ireland Forum for environmental research. It should report by June 2001. This scoping study will provide the basis for development of a Northern Ireland strategy to deal with the impact of climate change.
Mr S Wilson:
Given the mass of contradictory evidence in relation to global warming and greenhouse gases, what is the Minister's view on whether or not the present climate changes are due to the natural cycle of events? We have had many ice ages, for example, and tornadoes and flooding in various parts of the world over the past 300 to 400 years. Do the Minister and his Department believe that the present changes in climate are caused by CO2 emissions?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
That question pre-dates devolution somewhat.
My opinion may be similar to Sammy Wilson's, although I cannot tell what is in his mind. Certainly, there is a power greater than any of us here which may be bringing about many of these changes. Nevertheless, it does not stop us from investigating it to ensure that such things do not worsen. What we are trying to ensure is that we go as far as we can within our power.
Wildlife (Dunmurry Area)
asked the Minister of the Environment what steps he is taking to ensure the protection of wildlife in the Dunmurry area.
The protection of wildlife throughout Northern Ireland is one of the key objectives of my Department. Through its Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) my Department seeks to identify important sites for wildlife and pursues a range of measures to conserve it. In the vicinity of Dunmurry in particular the EHS has recently commissioned detailed ecological surveys of seven sites identified in a previous survey as important to wildlife.
The EHS also supports the running of the Lagan Valley Regional Park through grant aid and close liaison. The management strategy and action plan for the parks set out to protect the wildlife of the Lagan Valley area.
My Department also owns an important site for conservation at Colin Glen. The forest park there is managed under contract by the Colin Glen Trust. One of the main objectives of the contract is to enhance the wildlife value of the park and to make it available for recreational and educational use. The trust itself is committed to protecting wildlife in the glen.
What restrictions has the Minister put in place to preserve the wildlife and trees on the site of the old Conway Hotel in Dunmurry, which is currently being developed?
Outline approval for housing development on the Conway Hotel site was granted on 5 August 2000. One of the conditions of that approval was that a detailed survey of bat and red squirrel activity on the site be submitted to the Department. Until this survey is received, it will not be possible to say what impact the proposed development might have on the wildlife or what actions may be required to mitigate this. The survey report will have to accompany the full detailed application when it is submitted by the developer. I must emphasise, however, that only outline approval was given. The Department will consider carefully the results of the survey. In all such cases the Planning Service seeks to balance the extensive demand for new houses with the need to protect the environment.
asked the Minister of the Environment if he will introduce criteria to regulate the density level of development, particularly in seaside towns such as Newcastle.
My Department considers all planning applications on their merits, in accordance with prevailing planning policies, including the statutory development plan for the area, and having regard to other material planning considerations. Development density is a material planning consideration. This is already a factor in land use planning which is taken into account when planning applications are being considered, including those for seaside towns. My Department has recently introduced a new design layout guide entitled 'Creating Places', which allows building densities for particular sites to be specified in development plans or development briefs. Where this does not happen, the Department will, nonetheless, have regard to the location of the development in relation to its context, the character of the surrounding area and accessibility and equality matters. In doing so, the Department will take account of 'Creating Places' as a material planning consideration.
I welcome what the Minister has said and I hope that the initiative will deal with the problems we are facing. Is the Minister aware that the development of planning policy in recent years has to some extent reacted to pressures on urban development space, which have been so severe that developers are encouraged to maximise the number of units per development? Does he not agree that, while it may be the correct thing to do in larger urban areas, it is not at all suitable in smaller towns with well-established building patterns, particularly if they are in areas of high scenic merit which require a separate set of policy criteria?
I am aware of the concerns not only about density but also about the character of some housing developments, particularly in seaside towns. This is happening all along the coastline, and I know that there are particular concerns about the eastern coastline of Northern Ireland. Concern about housing density is often closely associated with increased emphasis on apartments and second homes. We know there are difficulties, but we can only take applications as they come to us. The applications are thoroughly investigated and assessed, and approval or refusal is given according to the merits of each case.
In its response to the panel report that followed the public examination of the draft regional strategic framework, the Department for Regional Development has stated that it will prepare a regional planning policy statement on housing and settlements. This will be an appropriate vehicle for addressing certain policy issues relating to the nature of housing developments. Development plans are a means by which planning policies for particular locations can be considered. The Ards and Down area plan, which includes Newcastle, is being prepared, and concerns about the density of development can be addressed in that context.
Mr S Wilson:
Does the Minister not agree that since sustainable development is an important issue in all current Government policies, the infrastructure exists in towns and the Government have themselves set a high proportion of new build on brownfield developments, it is essential to increase the density of developments in urban areas if we are to meet the target for sustainable development and the brownfield site target for new build?
Undoubtedly, there are currently great demands on housing development all over the Province. This suggests that much is being invested in the Province, and people are beginning to wonder if it can be handled. I take the question the Member has asked, but I also make the point that each case is dealt with on its own merits and assessed accordingly.
Mrs E Bell:
I too thank the Minister for his comments on area plans and extensions to them. Does he not agree that this density exists in seaside towns? I know that some of those investments can be good, but does he not agree that the character of an area and our heritage should be taken into consideration when townscape plans are being drawn up?
As I have said, all cases are taken on their merits. As to the character of an area, I can assure the Member that the Planning Service does not make decisions on applications lightly.
Mr C Murphy
asked the Minister of the Environment if he will detail his plans to review planning policy, particularly where the developer is responsible for related infrastructural improvement works.
Planning Policy Statement 1 sets out our current policy on the infrastructure works required to facilitate development proposals under the heading 'General Principles'. My Department will normally require developers to bear the cost of work required to facilitate their development proposals.
While it is my Department's policy to review planning policy statements on an ongoing basis, there are no firm plans to review this recent statement. This policy needs to be applied in a way which maintains public confidence that planning applications are dealt with strictly on their merits.
Mr C Murphy:
I note that the Minister said "will normally require". The experience of most people - and I accept that there is a need for developers in certain instances to develop the infrastructure themselves - is that there has mostly been a blanket application of this policy.
Does the Minister agree that in areas where the roads infrastructure is already very poor - areas such as those which myself and the Minister represent - this is an additional burden on developers? The roads in those areas are generally highly underdeveloped. Development is very much desired, so it is a double burden on a developer to have to develop the infrastructure as well. Developers are being doubly penalised by having to do a job that the Government should have done years ago. This reduces development in areas where it is most needed. Will the Minister review the planning policy in that regard?
I cannot answer for the Government before devolution. However, paragraph 61 of the Planning Policy Statement indicates the circumstances in which a developer may be required to contribute to facilitating his development proposals:
"where a proposed development requires the provision or improvement of infrastructural works over and above those programmed in development plans";
"where earlier than planned implementation of a programmed scheme is required";
"where a proposed development is dependent on the carrying out of works outside the site".
Development plans also highlight specific needs for infrastructure provision to facilitate development within plan areas. The matter of infrastructure provision in relation to proposals contained in an area plan is a legitimate matter for discussion at an area plan public inquiry.
There is an ongoing programme to provide full area plan coverage of Northern Ireland by 2005.
Waste Management Strategy
asked the Minister of the Environment if he will detail the consultation he has had with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development on the implementation of the waste management strategy in respect of agricultural waste.
Agricultural waste is not controlled waste for the purposes of the Waste and Contaminated Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which sets the statutory framework for the Northern Ireland waste management strategy and it does not, therefore, yet come under the controlled waste regime established by that strategy. However, the EC Waste Framework Directive requires the extension of the control regime to agricultural waste.
As indicated in the waste management strategy, my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development intend to collaborate in the preparation of an agricultural waste strategy. We plan to have this strategy completed and incorporated into the overall waste management strategy at the first review point in 2002.
As a first step, officials in the Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will shortly carry out a study into the nature of agricultural waste in Northern Ireland.
I am glad to hear that discussions have at least started. However, can the Minister give us an assurance that he will do all he can, in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and its Minister, to ensure that the more intensive agricultural sectors in Northern Ireland, which are already under severe stress, do not suffer further when the new EU Directive is introduced? Will his plans be in place to deal with that?
I can assure the Member that this Department does not take anything lightly. This Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will collaborate to develop an agricultural waste strategy once the scope and definition of the control of agricultural waste has been clarified. As a first step, both Departments will co-ordinate their information campaigns and good practices on the safe and sustainable management of waste materials.
asked the Minister of the Environment to give an assurance that he will apply the planning rules evenly and impartially to all applicants.
Planning Policy Statement 1 sets out the general principles that the Department observes when carrying out its planning functions. The Department is committed to discharging its responsibilities in an honest, impartial and open manner. It is the Department's policy that all planning applications are considered on their merits, in accordance with prevailing planning policies. Those include the statutory development plan for the area and having regard for any other material considerations.
It is also the Department's policy that planning applications are dealt with in a fully documented and corporate decision-making process.
Can the Minister assure the House that he will take the initiative and give more flexibility to rural planning control, especially where the agriculture sector is concerned?
I am not sure that this question is in line with the initial question. However, rural planning is very dear to my heart, and I give an assurance that we will consider rural communities and do what we can to assist them.
Mr J Wilson
asked the Minister of the Environment if he will introduce legislation to place height restrictions on the growing of Leylandii trees on private property.
I have no plans to introduce such legislation at this time. I am aware of plans in England and Wales to introduce legislation to control the height of Leylandii and other high hedges. Considerable time and resources were devoted there to researching this subject, and a working party was established in 1998. There is not sufficient evidence to merit resources being diverted from other important matters to carry out similar research in Northern Ireland, or to progress work to a stage where legislation could be introduced. All available resources are fully committed to an existing programme of work.
I am aware, however, that this is an issue of concern for some individuals, and I will keep the Department's priorities under review, including whether higher priority should be given to this issue.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Mr J Wilson:
I thank the Minister for his reply. Given that councillors and public health departments are inundated with distressed residents in private properties who suffer considerable inconvenience on this matter, can the Minister assure us that he will make every effort to bring forward effective legislation?
I assure Mr Wilson that we will see what we can do. The issue is currently being discussed in England and Wales. We will take our cue from what happens there and consider how it affects us in Northern Ireland.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Dr Hendron):
I beg to move
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to Friday 23 February 2001 in relation to the Committee Stage of the Health & Personal Social Services Bill [NIA3/00].
The Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee welcomes in principle the Health and Personal Social Services Bill, which covers a wide range of issues including: the establishment of a regulatory body for social care workers; the recovery from insurance companies of health service costs of treating road traffic casualties; repeal of the law relating to GP fundholding; changes to the administration and financial arrangements for health and social services trusts; measures to reduce fraudulent evasion of health service charges; and the power to regulate pharmacists. I have mentioned only some of the 19 disparate matters covered by this important Bill.
I hope that Members will appreciate that to allow the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee sufficient time to give due consideration to the many complex issues raised, an extension of the Committee Stage is necessary. Although we are seeking an extension until 23 February 2001 to cover all eventualities, I hope that we may be in a position to report to the Assembly earlier. I therefore ask Members to support the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to Friday 23 February 2001 in relation to the Committee Stage of the Health and Personal Social Services Bill [NIA 3/00].
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Molloy):
I beg to move
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to Friday 27 April 2001 in relation to the Committee Stage of the Defective Premises (Landlord's Liability) Bill [NIA 5/00].
A Cheann Comhairle, the Committee Stage of the Defective Premises (Landlord's Liability) Bill began on 24 October 2000. The Committee was at that time also dealing with the Ground Rents Bill. The Committee has now concluded its consideration on that Bill, and the Minister of Finance and Personnel has given priority to the Government Resources and Accounts Bill, requesting that the Committee deal with it next. I have therefore sought an extension to Friday 27 April 2001 to ensure that the Department of Finance and Personnel is able to complete the Committee Stage of the Government Resources and Accounts Bill before embarking on consideration of this one.
I hope that in moving the Government Resources and Accounts Bill, which I will attempt later, we will have time to deal with it sooner than expected. We have one bite at this, and we must ask for an extension within the 30-day period. We need to move this motion today to give ourselves an assurance for the future and ample time to complete the task. I ask Members to support the motion.
I want to make one remark on a point of order in response to what the Member has said about proposing motions for extension within the 30-day period. Standing Orders are quite clear that the request must be made within 30 days. As I am creative of mind, I could work out circumstances where more than one such motion might be possible within the 30-day period. The issue concerns the 30 days rather than only one motion. The Procedures Committee might examine the matter again. I wished to clarify that for the Member - indeed, for the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to Friday 27 April 2001 in relation to the Committee Stage of the Defective Premises (Landlord's Liability) Bill [NIA 5/00].
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Molloy):
I beg to move
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to Friday 2 March 2001 in relation to the Committee Stage of the Government Resources and Accounts Bill [NIA 6/00].
A Cheann Comhairle, the Government Resources and Accounts Bill will have an enduring impact on the way in which Government resources are planned and controlled. It will affect this Assembly and all Government Departments and agencies, as well as the public sector.
The incoming financial year - 2001-02 - is the target date for introducing the Resource and Accounting Bill budget. We need to address this Bill, because it is complex, dealing with issues such as public accountability, which require careful scrutiny by the Committee and the Assembly. The Committee Stage of this Bill began on 8 November 2000. Since then the Finance and Personnel Committee has taken evidence on the Bill. A number of concerns have arisen as to how it will operate if the Assembly approves the Bill as it now stands. It is therefore important that sufficient time be given for the proper consideration of the Bill.
It is the Committee's view that this scrutiny will take several weeks to complete. Although I sought an extension until 2 March 2001, my Committee gave a commitment last Thursday to the Minister of Finance and Personnel to complete its scrutiny by 26 January 2001. That will allow the Assembly and the Department sufficient time to complete the remaining stages of the Bill.
Since the Committee has given a commitment to the Minister to move this forward, we will support the amendment put forward by him. Obviously, this new timescale will mean extra Committee meetings and the devotion of extra time to the Bill. Given the number of meetings necessary with so many Bills coming through the Committee, that is a difficulty. However, if we are to meet the timescale laid down, Members will have to form a quorum at Committee meetings. I ask all parties and Committee members to facilitate matters by ensuring that the Committee has a quorum with which to operate.
One amendment, standing in the name of the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Durkan, is being accepted.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan): I beg to move the following amendment: In line 2, after "Friday", delete "2 March" and insert "26 January".
I am very grateful to the Finance and Personnel Committee for agreeing that the Committee Stage of this Bill should be completed by 26 January 2001. I recognise the full range of demands on the Committee at present on both policy and legislative issues. However, it is essential that this Bill be enacted before the beginning of the next financial year. The Treasury has already moved the planning system onto the basis of resource budgeting from 2001-02 onwards. It would simply not be manageable to run the planning and monitoring of public spending on resource accounting and the estimates and accounts on cash accounting.
Completion of the Committee Stage on 26 January will mean that the remaining stages will all need to proceed without any delay on the fastest timetable available if the Bill is to be enacted before the beginning of the new financial year. I have written to the Finance and Personnel Committee and the Public Accounts Committee today in response to their concerns about the accountability aspects of the Bill, and especially the need for the Comptroller and Auditor General to be able to fulfil his role fully and properly on behalf of the Assembly in general and the Public Accounts Committee in particular.
I will propose that this be addressed fully in forthcoming legislation, allowing us to take account of the outcome of the Sharman review, which addresses related issues in Whitehall. We do not necessarily need to follow any approach that might emerge there, but we should take it into account and learn what we can from experience elsewhere. I hope that these firm reassurances to the Committees and to the Assembly as a whole will remove any doubts about the effects of proceeding with this Bill quickly. Thus my amendment, which reflects the position agreed by the Finance and Personnel Committee last Thursday, should be accepted. I welcome the fact that if this be the case, it should in turn assist with the earlier completion of the Committee Stage of the Defective Premises (Landlord's Liability) Bill.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Leslie):
I rise to support the motion and confirm that the matter was indeed discussed with the Committee after its Chairman had laid the original motion before the House. In view of the timing and the need to achieve Royal Assent by the end of the financial year, the Committee will endeavour to meet the earlier target.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)
In addressing this amendment, I should like to take the opportunity to make one or two remarks on the subject of the extension of Committee Stages, which is becoming a regular feature of business in the House.
When the amendments to Standing Orders were put through, towards the end of the last session, both Mr Fee and I remarked that while we welcomed the addition of an extra Consideration Stage, we were not convinced that the overall structure of the procedures was appropriate. It is becoming manifest that that is the case. Whereas the earlier provision for Consideration Stages in the first draft of Standing Orders proved to be excessively long, we have now moved the pendulum too far in the other direction and the standard period is too short. Consequently, this is not an ill reflection on those Committees seeking extensions, as that is inevitable because of the shortness of the period.
There are two other matters that need to be taken into account by Members, the Procedures Committee and perhaps the Business Committee. First, those Members involved in Committees considering Bills are becoming aware of the considerable extra volume of work that this entails. I wonder if we should give consideration, in the timing of our recesses, to delaying the restart of the plenary sittings, if that is reasonable given the programme of business, but not the start of Committee work. Perhaps we could have two or three weeks at the beginning of term when Committees could work uninterrupted before the plenaries recommenced. I hope the relevant Committees will take that into account when planning future business.
Secondly, there is the issue of the hours worked by Members. Some remarks were addressed to the Chamber last week on the subject of family-friendly hours. I did not agree with those remarks, although there was no opportunity to respond to them at the time - they were ill-considered. It is not realistic for a legislative assembly to expect to work what appears to be rather less than a 40-hour week. The pressure of business and the need to get some of the business through in prescribed time frames are such that Members must accept that the hours, from time to time, will be very unfriendly indeed. Some of those hours will perforce be quite long.
We need to be aware that House of Commons Committees typically sit for five hours at a stretch - perhaps twice a week - hammering on until they get to the end of a Bill. Members will need to bear this in mind. However, it should also be said that that is a much larger House and the frequency with which Members have to participate in Committees processing legislation is far less. Therefore, that should be regarded as the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, Members must be prepared, from time to time, to put their shoulders to the wheel in bursts of considerable activity.
In conclusion, I hope that those responsible for the procedures of the House will take these remarks into account. I support the amendment.
As members of the Finance and Personnel Committee are aware, I registered my objection to such an amendment at the last meeting of the Committee. I do so again today - first, to be consistent and secondly, to take the opportunity of expressing to the House how strange I find it that a few weeks ago, when we first discussed this Bill, the Committee took the view that it was necessary to have an extension to 2 May. That happened just a couple of weeks ago, and now it appears that the Committee is prepared to take the proverbial U-turn. To paraphrase a certain "iron lady", "You can turn if you like. This gentleman from Lagan Valley is not for turning."
It has to be stressed that this legislation coming before the Finance and Personnel Committee has been described as a fundamental change in Government accountability. I go further and say that the Treasury - a body not given to any exaggerated claims, as all Members will be aware - has described it as the biggest reform of public finance management since the Gladstone era.
I take it rather ill that the Treasury, the Department or the Minister should attempt in any way to rush this piece of fundamental legislation through the House. If we do so, we will be doing the people we represent and ourselves a great disservice. We will further erode and reduce the role of the Statutory Committees of the House. It is not the first time that I have risen to complain about the way in which we have, over these past two years, been constantly urged, exhorted, coerced into rolling over in order that predetermined time limits are met. The time has now come to draw a line under that. If we have a scrutiny role to perform, we have a statutory responsibility to those who sent us here to perform that role.
I do not have any objection in principle to changing to resource accounting. In fact, I welcome it. However, I have great difficulties with various terms and sections of the Bill that, on the face of it, would appear to restrict the powers, for example, of the Comptroller and Auditor General, and to curtail and restrict accountability, scrutiny and transparency. After all, we have heard from almost every Minister who has stood in the House that transparency must be a watchword. Where is that transparency if we are not allowed the time to do the job for which we were elected?
This problem confronts not only the Finance and Personnel Committee, but I will restrict my remarks to the Committee on which I serve. We were told recently during the debate on the Budget that we would have adequate time to look at the draft Budget and to bring forward amendments and recommendations. Likewise with the draft Programme for Government, and now equally, within the same curtailed time frame, we have another major piece of legislation about which we are told "Never mind; it will be all right on the night." That is not good enough.
I want to have the opportunity to bring about the necessary amendments to this Bill, not to slavishly follow Westminster. I do not want to wait for Sharman. I want to use the abilities of the members of the Committee and to represent the views of our electorate to bring about the necessary changes. If the Scottish Parliament decided that it was not accepting the Bill on the face of it, and made the necessary changes, why can we not do the same? Why are we not given the time? Half right is not good enough. We should strive for as perfect a Bill as we can get to ensure that the accountability is there in black and white.
I support the remarks made by Mr Leslie. I also have a good deal of sympathy with Mr Close's comments. This is an important Bill in its impact on the Department of Finance and Personnel. It is vital that major pieces of financial legislation such as this be given proper scrutiny by the Finance and Personnel Committee. We need to have the time and the resources to fulfil this role. The Committee's main function should be the scrutiny of key financial areas such as the legislation in the Bill. Its most crucial job is scrutinising the Budget. Again, there are question marks over the time available for that.
The fact that we have to ask for an extension on this Bill raises a much more fundamental question. Indeed, some of the issues raised by James Leslie bear close scrutiny. There is not enough time to scrutinise Bills. It is an acute concern with the Finance and Personnel Committee, but also concerns other Committees. We are left with two alternatives. Either we rubber-stamp Bills without giving them proper scrutiny - which is not our role - or we ask for more time for Bills. If the latter option is chosen, we are in danger of building up a massive backlog.
This issue must be tackled properly, and there are two areas which need to be examined. First, the level of resources available to the Committees must be looked at. There have been many complaints about the cost of the Assembly and the amount of money being spent on recruitment. However, there is one area which has not been adequately addressed, and that is the provision of resources and proper support for Committees. The civil servants servicing those Committees are doing an excellent job and are working extremely hard, but if we are going to cut back on the number of extensions, those Committees must be given the resources to be able to - [Interruption].
The Member is absolutely right. As one of two Assembly Commissioners present in the Chamber, I can advise the House that we have just completed the first round of recruitment for Clerks' positions, although the appointments have not yet been made. Considerable steps are being taken to meet Members' concerns.
I appreciate that point, and I realise that there has been a complication in hiring the appropriate staff. Indeed, that was one of the principal reasons for the Hallowe'en recess. It was driven by the needs of the Civil Service, rather than the needs of Members. As Mr Leslie pointed out, we must consider the possibility of having no restrictions on the number of hours Committees sit and ensure that they have the resources to do the job properly. If they are going to tackle their level of work and deal with issues in a correct way, Committees must meet more regularly and for longer hours.
There is also a specific problem with the Finance and Personnel Committee - and this Bill is symptomatic of it. The Committee on Procedures must look at that problem. As I said, the first priority of the Finance and Personnel Committee is to scrutinise the Budget, and the second priority is to deal with financial legislation, of which this is a perfect example. The problem that must be examined is the fact that the Office of Law Reform, which is responsible for wide areas of civil law, is included in the Department of Finance and Personnel. As a result, the Department of Finance and Personnel is the sponsoring Department for a wide range of issues - for example, the Ground Rents Bill, on which the Committee spent a long time. Although this was worthy legislation, it was probably no more relevant to the Department of Finance and Personnel than to any other Department. There are other pieces of legislation due which would fit in more comfortably with other Departments. If the Finance and Personnel Committee is to do its job properly, the Committee on Procedures must consider sharing the legislation that comes from the Office of Law Reform with other Departments.
While I support the extension in the case of the Bill, a clear warning signal must be given today. We cannot defer Bills into the distant future because of the system's structure. We must ensure that Bills such as this are given proper scrutiny. Otherwise we will not be doing our jobs as Assembly Members properly.
I echo entirely the sentiments raised by Mr Close, Mr Weir and, originally, Mr Leslie. Most Committee members feel that there is inadequate time to scrutinise properly everything that they are supposed to. That raises a question about the role of Committees. Are they sufficiently resourced and able to carry out their tasks? The Committees believe that there is not enough time, but if more time is sought, that will clash with other business. The Committee on Procedures should examine, in the first instance, whether Committees are adequately staffed, and secondly, how to find enough time for them to meet. Otherwise we could relapse into another form of direct rule, whereby Committees are merely an exercise in rubber-stamping - a term that has already been used this afternoon.
It behoves the House, if it is to look at the issue seriously, to enhance the role of Committees, and that means ensuring that they have adequate time in which to carry out their work. Otherwise the term "scrutiny" will mean a casual glance, and "transparency" will mean opaqueness. The Committees are currently finding it difficult to take more than a scant glance at legislation and issues for discussion that come their way. For instance, the Ground Rents Bill is still somewhere in the bowels of the system, and there is not yet an end result. Yet it is only a minor piece of legislation.
The Government Resources and Accounts Bill, which is now before the Finance Committee, is described by some as a reforming Bill that deserves proper scrutiny within a reasonable time and with proper resources.
There has been a call today for the Procedures Committee not only to enhance the resources of Committees but also to examine how the Committee system operates. If we do not do that, we may not get the Committees operating properly through a lack of resources, time and a proper allocation of those resources around the system, which everyone genuinely wants to work.
First, I acknowledge the seriousness of the point that Members have made. I appreciate the particular difficulties faced by the members of the Finance and Personnel Committee because of the timetabling of business and the legislative workload. That Committee is already dealing with a number of items of legislation, and many Members, when they joined, did not foresee the volume of legislation that would be passing through. They joined in the belief that the emphasis would be on finance and personnel rather than on other aspects of the Department's responsibilities. As the Minister of Finance and Personnel, I carry those responsibilities and, under the agreement and the legislation, part of the Committee's role is to advise and assist me on those matters.
I accept that other Departments and Committees may have an interest in certain areas of legislation. Although members of other Committees may assert this in the House, they do not necessarily pursue their interest by taking the opportunity afforded to them to contribute to the work on those pieces of legislation.
I want to raise again a point of concern about comments made in the House on legislation coming from the Office of Law Reform. I sympathise with some of the concerns and frustrations that Members have, which have been reinforced by scheduling difficulties. However, I do not want to create a situation where the work of the Office of Law Reform is orphaned by the Department and the Committees. We must remember that the objective is law reform and, therefore, the development of legislative proposals. I accept Members' points on this matter, but, as an Assembly, we need to review and reform legislation properly. We should therefore think carefully before we send out signals about not being sure about how to deal with certain details of law reform. We need to consider the optimum means of discharging our business in those areas.
The Government Resources and Accounts Bill is an important piece of legislation. It will help to change significantly how we present public expenditure plans and how they manifest themselves in the accounts and in the Budget. However, the Bill reflects the legislation brought forward by the Treasury. That is why there was no extensive consultation exercise. We were not making significant changes beyond those which might be expected in the context of the end of direct rule.
Some members of the Finance and Personnel Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Committee raised points about what they believe to be inadequate content and coverage of the Bill. The Bill is about accounts rather than accountability and audit. If the Bill were extended to take in those issues - and some people say it should be - it would be a more serious and extensive piece of legislation. That would require more serious and elaborate public consultation because it would make significant changes to the treatment for audit and accountability purposes of moneys that are handled by different bodies. Those bodies may be private sector, voluntary/community sector or non-departmental bodies in what all of us would have understood and assumed to be the public sector.
Those are valid issues, but if they were to be addressed in the Bill, it would change in character and more time would be required. It was possibly for those reasons that members of the Committee said that they would need until May to consider it because they had more work to do. It was legitimate for the Finance and Personnel Committee to say that, and it will be equally legitimate for it to say that about the further legislation that must be worked through - the Audit Reorganisation Bill. That will address issues such as auditing and the rights of access of the Comptroller and Auditor General. That Bill will deal with some of the functions of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Northern Ireland Audit Office.
That is the relevant and appropriate legislation in which to deal with and address those issues, and the Department of Finance and Personnel is serving notice of that to all the interested Committees. As well as talking to the Finance and Personnel Committee, I attended a joint meeting of the Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Committee and told them why we believed that some of the areas being pursued by Members are inappropriate to the Bill. That does not mean that they are not appropriate; it means that there will be subsequent legislation appropriate to them.
The Department of Finance and Personnel is serving notice now - as it has done before - to the relevant Committees. They can pursue the matters and develop their proposals and interests in those areas now. They do not need to await further proposals, particularly from the Department of Finance and Personnel, and the Finance and Personnel Committee is already working on those areas.
It is clear from the discussions today and from what has taken place in Committees that the Committees are already pursuing those areas. That is happening at a pre- legislative stage, and that is as it should be. On that basis it is hoped that Members are prepared to accept the amendment because it is important that the legislation is passed before the end of the financial year. The Assembly will be in an impossible position if the legislation is not passed before then. If it is passed, the Department of Finance and Personnel will be able to pursue the important questions that the Finance and Personnel Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Committee are raising.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I agree with and share the concerns of Members who have spoken about the timescale. I particularly take on board Mr Close's points, which he also made in the Committee. There is a grave need for the correct scrutiny to take place in all the Committees if the Assembly is to get proper legislation. If this were the final legislation on the issue, the Committee would be holding firm to the latter date of 2 March.
We are confident from the Minister's statement that there will be further legislation ensuring access to the Comptroller and Auditor General so that he can provide proper guidance. That will bring us on another stage.
This important piece of legislation will help Committees carry out their scrutiny function. It will make the Departments and structures more accountable to the Committees and to the Assembly. It is important that we move things forward quickly so that we can get the legislation soon. It will give us some teeth, and it will ensure that we can make people accountable. The Committee asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for a number of assurances. The Committee received those assurances, and I am certain that they will be lived up to.
We can make the changes that Mr Close talked about in relation to the face of the Bill. We can do it, even with the shorter timescale. However, it is not only time that the Committee needs to make the necessary changes to the face of the Bill; it takes proposals, amendments, and motions coming to the Assembly. I am confident that, with the proper proposals and amendments coming forward at Committee Stage, some aspects of the Bill that are relevant and that people want to see can be changed.
However, it comes down to the issue of concentrating people's minds in Committees regarding this and other Bills. The Committee's role is to scrutinise legislation and to put the time into ensuring that the Committee Stage of each Bill is completed. Everyone will have to put more time into the Committee Stage and into Committee business. We need a quorum in order to do that. Members will have to concentrate their minds on that and, to some extent, their other roles in the Assembly, or outside, will have to be set aside.
I also ask the Business Committee to look again at the whole issue of the distribution of Bills. It is not that the Finance and Personnel Committee wants to send work to other Committees; it is because some Bills coming from the Office of Law Reform are more relevant to other Committees. The present Bill would probably be more relevant to the Health Committee than to the Finance Committee.
We have to be realistic in determining which is the proper Committee to scrutinise a Bill. The Business Committee should do that, and it should ensure that Bills are distributed to appropriate Committees. I ask Members to support the amendment, which is in keeping with the Committee's decision to bring forward the legislation to 26 January 2001. In that way the Committee will ensure that it meets the timescale and completes the proper scrutiny of the Bill at the same time. Go raibh maith agat.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to Friday 26 January 2001 in relation to the Committee Stage of the Government Resources and Accounts Bill [NIA 6/00].TOP
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what can be done to avoid the impending closure of Fermanagh Creameries at Lisnaskea, County Fermanagh.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
The recent announcement about the closure of Fermanagh Creameries is very much regretted. However, this is a commercial decision taken by the parent company as part of its planned operational reorganisation.
I thank the Minister for taking time out of his busy schedule to come to the House to answer my question.
This is an urgent local matter and it is important that we try to improve the situation. Does the Minister know whether any other companies have made bids to take over the plant as a going concern? If closure is inevitable, can the Minister look at the provision of advice and help for those facing redundancies, including those who may wish to start up a small business under programmes run by the IDB and LEDU?
Sir Reg Empey:
I am not aware of any companies seeking to take over the operation, but I cannot say that negotiations are not going on. The company gave us no advance notice of the decision; it was announced to the press at the same time that it was announced to us.
I am aware of the difficult circumstances in County Fermanagh in the past couple of months. A series of announcements has caused considerable distress there. I will be visiting the county for a number of engagements in the next 10 days, and I shall take the matter up with the local council - officials and councillors - because it has been working closely with the IDB in recent weeks.
I know that the Member, as a supplier to the company, has a personal interest in this regrettable matter. The company took over the plant earlier this year as part of a substantial rationalisation of its dairy business throughout the country. At that stage, people hoped that that would provide a firmer foundation on which the company could establish itself. Members will also be aware that last week the closure was announced of a factory in Dorset that is also part of the group; it is in that context that the decision has been taken. The IDB is trying to come to an agreement with the company about what can be done. Financial assistance was offered to the company in 1992, and only part of that was drawn down.
The Member also asked about the provision of advice and help. A group is already working with the IDB and other agencies in County Fermanagh in the wake of the Desmond & Sons Ltd announcement. The work of that group will be extended to deal with this case.
It is all a matter of deep regret, and I hope to learn more on my visit to the county.
I deplore the fact that Fermanagh has lost another industry. The firm has carried out further rationalisation and has made 78 people redundant in the Lisnaskea area. The company's announcement only compounds the problem in Fermanagh; a total of 700 jobs has been lost in the past two years. Not only have workers lost their jobs, but the already beleaguered farmers in the area must now pay an extra £200 a month in transportation costs because of the closure of the plant. How will they be helped?
Will the Minister ensure that the workforce gets help to find alternative employment and endeavour to draw vital investment to the area to facilitate the creation of sustainable employment for the future?
Sir Reg Empey:
I am conscious of the situation affecting the suppliers. As the hon Lady said, they could face increased transportation costs.
I will obviously consult with my hon Friend the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, and the company is meeting with suppliers and employees later today to explain its decision. It has not been possible for us to establish the rationale behind the decision because contact between ourselves and the company has not elicited any response or explanation since the announcement last Thursday. I hope that after the meeting this evening more information will be available. We are acutely aware of the series of announcements in the county which have affected the agriculture sector and have put pressure on the rural community.
With regard to finding alternative employment, I indicated that the group working with the council, the IDB and LEDU will obviously wish to take on the job of trying to assist those employees who will be in difficulties. With regard to the wider situation in the county, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit as of last month shows a continual and significant drop in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency. Unemployment in that area has dropped by 11% in the past 12 months and now stands at 2,294 persons. Clearly that masks the fact that there are pockets of very high unemployment and the loss of 78 jobs in a small rural community is a huge blow by any stretch of the imagination. Not only are the employees directly affected, but, as the hon Member pointed out, the suppliers are affected. The repercussions of this closure go far beyond the 78 people who work in the plant. We will have to take further advice and I will certainly need to talk to my hon Friend the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.
All of us share the Minister's great sense of shock over how suddenly a workforce can be made redundant, quite simply overnight. In this case a workforce that has always had good relations with the management and has excellent workers has just been cast aside in the private interests of some company from well outside the area. I welcome the Minister's expression of support and his interest in working with the local council and others interested in attracting investment to the area.
We have had an encouraging job announcement from Rye Valley Foods in recent weeks, but a great deal more needs to be done. The quicker we get more investment into the area the better. The town in question is Lisnaskea, in south Fermanagh, where wards with the highest levels of deprivation are found, including Rosslea and Newtownbutler. While any jobs would be welcome in Fermanagh at the moment, we must keep the restoration of employment to Lisnaskea as a priority, given the local circumstances.
Sir Reg Empey:
This was a sudden announcement and a shock to all of us. There will be further announcements of this nature because the way in which things happen today means that many companies are not necessarily widely supported by the IDB. This company has had no financial offer because it has made no request for help since 1992, and we therefore have no ongoing arrangement with it.
That does not necessarily mean that things were turned down; it is simply that requests have not been made. That company, like others, made its announcement out of the blue and without consultation. I had a similar experience when the textile sector hit a bad patch at the start of the year.
Indeed, there was one case of an IDB official meeting a company in the morning, and no mention was made of an announcement of significant redundancies that after- noon. Companies do this sort of thing for their own commercial reasons and I wanted to put that on the record. There is sometimes a misunderstanding, an assumption that Government know about it in advance.
There is regular contact with potential client companies on an ongoing basis, but companies frequently do not show their commercial hand. Often even local management does not know if it is a foreign or cross-channel company. We are looking at the broader picture here, and Members will appreciate that as far as this particular group is concerned we are looking at the liquid bulk milk market throughout the UK. That is important.
I fully appreciate that there are good relationships there. In response to the main point of Mr Gallagher's question about County Fermanagh, I can say that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment's agencies, particularly the IDB, are working closely with the council to understand its preferred priorities for local economic development. Following the IDB roadshow in Omagh in September, the IDB's chief executive and senior officials have met with council representatives and other individuals concerned with local economic development to understand how this work can be taken forward.
The council will respond to the IDB within the next few weeks to discuss the make-up of a representative group of all interested parties. I hope that that will go some way to ensuring that the interests of the county are taken into account in any future inward investment.