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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 12 February 2001 (continued)

Mr Byrne:

I thank the Minister for his announcement about the rates review. Does the Minister accept that it is important that due consideration be given to the character of business in Northern Ireland, particularly the small retail sector? In the last review, that sector felt that it was unduly dealt a severe blow and that the rating review seemed to cause less pain to the larger multiples.

Mr Durkan:

I accept the Member's point. The last review was a revaluation of rating in the non-domestic sector, and that is different from the wider rating policy review that I have announced. There will be a revaluation in the non-domestic sector. That has already been announced, and work on that is in progress.

Given that many Members feel that there are outstanding discrepancies since the last revaluation or that there have been significant changes, particularly in the retail geography, since then, that is all the more reason that they should support the non-domestic revaluation that is under way. That is a separate exercise from the wider rating policy review, and it would not have been fair or proper to postpone the revaluation that needs to happen on a timely basis just because the rating policy is being reviewed.

Government Departments: Decentralisation


Mr Ford

asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail progress towards the decentralisation of Government Departments outside the Greater Belfast area.

(AQO 768/00)


Mr McGrady

asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to outline progress in the decentralisation of Civil Service jobs to South Down; and to make a statement.

(AQO 748/00)


Mr Hussey

asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to confirm that his review of Civil Service accommodation will be completed by June 2001.

(AQO 753/00)


Mr Beggs

asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to report on his review of Civil Service office locations throughout Northern Ireland.

(AQO 773/00)

Mr Durkan:

Madam Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will take questions 4, 6, 7 and 18 together.

With regard to the dispersal of Civil Service jobs, I do not wish to prejudice the outcome of the accommodation review or speculate about those areas that might feature in job relocation considerations. Following the recent baseline review of the Government office database and the Executive Committee's agreement to Next Steps, consultants will be engaged to take forward the next phase of the accommodation review process.

A completion date of June 2001 is no longer considered viable, and I anticipate that it will be October, possibly November, before final recommendations regarding accommodation and associated dispersal implications can be brought to the Assembly.

3.45 pm

Mr Ford:

The Minister will be pleased to know that if he does not intend to discuss the merits of different locations, I will not mention Ballynure, Toomebridge, Crumlin or anywhere in between. The Assembly warmly welcomes the recently increased staffing in the Department of the Environment and, in particular, in the Planning Service and the Environment and Heritage Service. However, is the Minister aware that there is now serious overcrowding in many Government offices in central Belfast as a result of the increased staffing? If there is to be no outcome of the review before November, should temporary action, which would not undermine the long-term need to decentralise jobs away from the city, not be taken?

Mr Durkan:

I assure the Member that the review will not be blind to any pressing needs. Some Departments have pressing needs, and some of these relate to staffing numbers and to the quality of locations. Issues are arising as matters proceed. Nevertheless, we want to make sure that we have a strategic framework that will guide our thinking, not just in meeting the ad hoc pressures and needs of Departments but in informing overall accommodation policy. I am aware of the needs of several Departments, and in many ways those needs add up to a strong justification for the sort of review that is being undertaken.

Mr McGrady:

In view of the fact that the Department for Regional Development will shortly be publishing the regional planning strategy, which predicts enhanced growth for areas outside Greater Belfast, will the Minister assure the Assembly that all Departments will be required to examine areas where there is scope for their activities to be transferred outside the Greater Belfast area? In other words, what services can be decentralised to give some meaning to the Executive's Programme for Government regarding rural proofing and the equality agenda?

Mr Durkan:

Many Members will be aware that each time questions have been asked on this subject I have stressed that there are various matters that have to be considered and reflected upon in the review that is being undertaken. Regional planning strategy is one of those matters, and there are also the sorts of undertakings contained in 'Shaping our Future', as finally approved.

On the issue of examining departmental activities to see what services might be suitable for decentralisation, authority was given at the Executive Committee on 8 February for the Department of Finance and Personnel to proceed with the next stage of the accommodation review. It was explained to the Executive that, in parallel, we will write to Departments asking them to reassess their accommodation requirements with regard to business needs, including the need for a presence on the Stormont estate and, where appropriate, to prepare a business case for meeting those requirements. As part of that exercise Departments will be asked to consider the scope for New TSN-related relocation, subject to cost and value-for-money assessments, and to bring forward costed proposals where there are pressing requirements or where early decisions are needed.

Mr Hussey:

I want to express my extreme disappointment at the four-to five-month delay in the review of accommodation. I wonder how much of that is due to resistance in the Civil Service to the proposals for the decentralisation of accommodation. The Minister will be well aware - as he supplied me with the figures himself - that in the constituency of West Tyrone 1·8% of the working population are civil servants.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

What is the question?

Mr Hussey:

The average percentage for Northern Ireland is 2·8%. West Tyrone clearly falls well below the average, and the figure represents a shortfall of 480 jobs. Can the Minister assure me that this will be taken into consideration when the review is published?

Mr Durkan:

With regard to the delay, we need to conduct the review in a realistic manner. Earlier, I referred to work carried out on the baseline review. We have received an updated database of Government office accommodation from consultants only recently. It follows on from something that was originally prepared two years ago, but with devolution and the reorganisation of Departments there have been changes, which have had to be tracked. That is really an essential prerequisite to the main stage of the review.

I recently obtained the agreement of Colleagues on the Executive Committee to their Departments starting work on the review. I expect to finalise the terms of reference shortly so that we can proceed with appropriate consultants for that particular assignment. Given the time factors involved in the appointment of consultants, which is not a straightforward matter, I am advising the Assembly of the likely slippage of the timescale. I do not believe that that in itself will affect the quality of the review.

I hear what the Member has said in relation to the proportions and the relative statistics, just as I hear a similar point coming from many other Members in other constituencies. All of the obvious concerns referred to will be reflected in the review.

Mr Beggs:

The Minister talked about targeting social need being one of the criteria that will determine where he will allocate potential new sites for Government offices. Will the current low numbers of civil servant jobs in constituencies be a weighting factor in the consideration? Will areas of high unemployment be a factor? Does the Minister recognise that there are areas, for instance in my own constituency of East Antrim, where there are very few civil service jobs and high unemployment? Does he recognise that there is a need to create an equitable spread of civil service jobs across all constituencies?

Mr Durkan:

I recognise the beneficial impact that public service and civil service jobs have in any given area, not least in those areas of high unemployment. Unemployment rates are one relevant indicator when it comes to measuring or reflecting social need. I have also indicated, in the past, that the levels of civil service jobs in locations relative to the overall population of working age would be a relevant consideration in identifying areas particularly ripe for hosting new civil service jobs.

Regional Rate


Mrs I Robinson

asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to state what representations he has received regarding the proposed increase in the regional rate.

(AQO 743/00)


Mr Dodds

asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail discussions he has had with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on the decision to increase the regional rate by 5% above the rate of inflation.

(AQO 787/00)


Mr S Wilson

asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail any meetings he has had with district councils or chief executives of councils to discuss the decision to increase the regional rate by 8%.

(AQO 776/00)

Mr Durkan:

I will take questions 5, 10 and 11 together. I have received written representations from three MLAs, six district councils, two private bodies and six members of the public regarding the proposed increase in the regional rates. The proposed rates increases were discussed at the Executive Committee each time the Budget was on the agenda.

Belfast City Council has requested an early meeting with me to discuss the regional rate increase, among other matters, and that meeting is currently being arranged.

Castlereagh Borough Council has also requested a meeting, which I am currently considering. Four other councils have written to me about the regional rate, but none of those requested a meeting. Appropriate written answers were either issued or are being issued in each case.

Mrs I Robinson:

Can the Minister give us the estimated impact of the proposed 3·3% rates increase on businesses, jobs and on personal disposable income? Does he agree that even this rise is coming at a time when there is an expected downturn in the economy, which, if it does come, will be made worse by his rates increase?

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Mr Durkan:

I recognise that any rates increase will be significant to ratepayers. However, given that people said that the rate of inflation should be the target figure and that rate increases should be pegged to it, I find complaints that 3·3% is too much a little hard to take now.

Although averages can be misleading, we are looking at a situation in which the reduction in the non-domestic rate to 3·3% - which was the rate figure that the Member mentioned - will see businesses paying, on average, an extra £150 a year instead of £299 a year. I thought that that reduction would have been welcomed.

I must also make the point that the revenue from the rates is welcome in view of the many spending programmes whose pressing needs have been outlined to the Executive and to my Department.

Mr Speaker:

Question 5 has been grouped with questions 10 and 11.

Mr Dodds:

In view of the rapid volte-face on non-domestic rate increase levels which the Minister announced this morning, I wonder if he considers it fair to increase the regional rate by more than double the rate of inflation for householders and domestic ratepayers. He should take it from me, and from those who have opposed him on this issue, that many householders will not find much comfort from the cheering, waving and handclapping that went on this morning as he announced that that increase was staying.

Despite the late state of play, will the Minister not reconsider that proposal in view of the reversal of his decision on non-domestic rates? He has proved that when the pressure is on, he really can find extra money. Some Members have already suggested diverting money from the North/South political institutions.

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for his points, which are familiar to me. The fact is - and I made it very clear this morning - that the change in the domestic rate increase is funded by the buoyancy of the valuation base. I explained repeatedly that this would happen if the figures allowed. There is no U-turn or volte-face in that.

Allow me now to respond to the question on the non-domestic regional rate. It is not the case that someone put this to me or to the Department of Finance and Personnel. On the contrary, at my request the Department examined certain issues and provided details that showed the comparisons between ourselves - [Interruption]

I refer Members again to my earlier point about the number of representations that I received. They were not particularly overwhelming, nor were huge numbers made. I must also make clear to the House that if the Department had not had the available resources left over from the December monitoring - particularly after it had dealt with the Health Service deficits - I would not have been able to make these revisions. Regardless of pressure, there would have been no change; the means would not have been available to fund a lower rate increase next year. This reduction is being made purely as a result of these moneys having subsequently become available. I was not in a position to place any reliance on their availability at any of the earlier stages when Members were making representations.

Mr S Wilson:

Is the Minister aware that in both Belfast and Londonderry there was all-party - and I include the SDLP in this - support for a meeting with him to express concern about the 8% increase in the regional rate? This is the third time today that he has been asked this question. We found out in the statement this morning that he has difficulty with sums, but will he tell us how much it would cost at this stage to reduce the domestic rate increase from 7% to 3·3%? In the light of representations from parties right across the board, including his own, will he accede to that request?

Mr Durkan:

On the point about the arithmetic, I overestimated the Member's numeracy. I thought I had made it clear that 1% equals £2 million. Therefore, if you go down from 7% to 3·3%, some £7 million will be required. Various Members and various parties state that we need to make a strong case on the Barnett formula, but they have not always said this. Some people have counselled strongly that we should not even raise the Barnett question, that the sky would fall in if we went to the Treasury and raised issues about the Barnett formula, and that it would be a dangerous thing to do. If we are to make the case to the Treasury, we need to make it based on the Barnett formula and we need to be realistic, namely that it would be against us in relation to the regional rate. It may be unpopular, but it seems strange on the one hand to be told that the 7% increase is unpopular and will not wash and, on the other, that we are making the decisions for reasons of populism or electoral gain. This is yet another inconsistency from the critics.

4.00 pm

Mrs Carson:

Can the Minister indicate whether he has received any representations, either directly or at the Executive Committee, from the Minister for Regional Development and the Minister for Social Development on the regional rate?

Mr Durkan:

I cannot confirm references that have been made in the past to representations or cases that people say were being made. As for information being made available in advance of Executive meetings, I can remember one occasion when I suggested possible consideration of a lower rate increase and received no particular backing from anyone -

Mr Speaker:


Mr Durkan:

The record would show it differently. We are caught in a situation in which some people take advantage of the "Now you see it, now you don't" semi-detached game that they can play with the Executive. They can claim certain positions -

Mr Speaker:


Mr Durkan:

For instance, in earlier considerations of the Budget, the Committee for Finance and Personnel did not recommend a lower rate increase. Obviously, Members of the party in the far corner were on -

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Minister is finishing his reply. Please let him continue.

Mr Durkan:

I am referring to the Committee for Finance and Personnel's report on the Budget. The report did not include a recommendation about the regional rate. That should be borne in mind, given the points that have been made about bodies on which all parties are represented - including Members of this House.

Socio-Economic Statistics


Mr McElduff

asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he has plans to further disseminate North/ South comparative socio-economic statistics following the recent joint Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA)/Central Statistics Office (CSO) Dublin publication 'Ireland, North and South: A Statistical Profile'.

(AQO 796/00)

Mr Durkan:

NISRA plans to publish the statistical profile on its Internet site in March ( Copies of the statistical profile are also available from the Stationery Office and the Bookshop at Queen's.

Mr Speaker:

Question Time for the Minister of Finance and Personnel started at 3.34 pm. It is now 4.04 pm, so the 30 minutes is up. Unfortunately, Mr McElduff will not be able to ask his supplementary, and other Members will not be able to do so either.

Mr Molloy:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. When the Minister of Finance and Personnel spoke to the Committee, it made a clear recommendation that the rates should be kept in line with inflation, both the regional rate and -

Mr Speaker:

Order. This may be a matter of politics, but it is not a matter of order. Therefore I must rule it out of order.

Mr P Robinson:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Would you rule whether it was in order for the Minister to ask the Committee to deal with his Budget statement in an expedited way? As a result of that, the Committee did not have the opportunity to prepare the necessary proposals in relation to changes to the Budget, but every one of the parties present questioned the Minister on the issue and had asked for it to be held down to below inflation.

Mr Speaker:

Order. As far as the order of things is concerned, we are in the process of changing the Standing Orders to ensure a new, smooth and transparent process where everyone will feel able not only to participate but also that the consultation has been appropriate. That, it seems to me, is the point of order here, and I look forward to its being followed with some assiduousness next time around.


Government Resources and Accounts Bill:Consideration Stage

Mr Speaker:

We do not have any amendments to the first six clauses. Before I seek leave of the House to put those clauses en bloc, may I remind Members that only one of amendments No 4 and No 5 may be made. If amendment No 4 is made, amendment No 5 will automatically fall. If amendment No 4 falls, amendment No 5 may be made. Similarly with amendments No 7 and No 8: if amendment No 7 is made, amendment No 8 will automatically fall. If amendment No 7 falls, amendment No 8 may be made.

Clauses 1 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7 (Resource accounts: preparation)

Mr Leslie:

I beg to move amendment No 1: In page 4, line 25, after "practice" insert

"as agreed with the Public Accounts Committee".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

Amendment No 2: In page 5, line 3, leave out "Department" and insert "department". - [Mr Molloy.]

Amendment No 4: After clause 17 insert the following new clause:

"Advisory group

*-(1) Before-

(a) issuing directions under section 7(2), or

(b) determining the form and content of accounts under section 12,

the Department shall consult the group of persons for the time being selected by the Treasury for the purposes of section 24(1) of the Government Accounts and Resources Act 2000 (c. 20).

(2) Where a group is consulted under subsection (1) in a particular year, the Department shall arrange for the group to prepare a report for that year-

(a) summarising the activities of the group for the purpose of the consultation, and

(b) dealing with such other matters as the group considers appropriate.

(3) Where a report is prepared under subsection (2), the Department shall arrange for it to be laid before the Assembly." - [Mr Durkan.]

Amendment No 5: After clause 17 insert the following new clause:

"Advisory group

*-(1) Before-

(a) issuing directions under section 7(2), or

(b) determining the form and content of accounts under section 12,

the Department shall take full account of all recommendations made by the group of persons for the time being selected by the Treasury for the purposes of section 24(1) of the Government Accounts and Resources Act 2000 (c. 20).

(2) Where a group is consulted under subsection (1) in a particular year, the Department shall arrange for the group to prepare a report for that year-

(a) summarising the activities of the group for the purpose of the consultation, and

(b) dealing with such other matters as the group considers appropriate.

(3) Where a report is prepared under subsection (2), the Department shall arrange for it to be laid before the Assembly." - [Mr Leslie.]

Amendment No 6 (clause 18): In page 10, after line 14, insert

"( ) In determining whether and, if so, how to exercise its powers under subsection (6) or (8), the Department shall have regard to any views expressed by the Public Accounts Committee of the Assembly." - [Mr Durkan.]

I welcome the Minister to financial matters, round three, Monday 12 February. By the end of this debate there will be very few nooks and crannies of the Assembly's finances that have not been turned over and looked under. That is really the substance of my amendment to clause 7. I raised these matters at the Second Stage and in the early Committee Stage. Unfortunately, I missed the later Committee Stages through illness, which is why two amendments are down in my name today.

Those amendments cover an exceedingly important matter: who oversees the overseer? The way the Bill is constructed, the Department reserves for itself all of the power to be the overseer, and clause 7 addresses that issue. Subsection 2 states:

"Resource accounts shall be prepared in accordance with directions issued by the Department."

- that is, the Department of Finance and Personnel.

Subsection 3 states:

"The Department shall exercise the power to issue directions under subsection (2) with a view to ensuring that resource accounts -

(a) present a true and fair view,"

- as you would expect, and -

(b) "conform to generally accepted accounting practice".

The Department also has the power to issue guidance on various matters.

There are two separate strains here. In my view, the Assembly should welcome the fact that the Department puts itself in charge of setting the same standard for all Departments. That is entirely appropriate, and anything else would be chaotic and would make it difficult to make comparisons.

Secondly, it is a good thing that clause 7(6) gives the Department the power to appoint an official in each Department as its accounting officer. I support the minor technical amendment - amendment No 2 - that relates to that matter. The provisions of the clause are welcome. The Assembly wants to be sure that a powerful Finance Department is able to ensure conformity between the other Departments.

The matter that exercises me is how the Department of Finance and Personnel will set the accounting standards, practices and conventions. The thrust of the Bill is in the move to resource accounting and the adoption of practices that are prevalent in the private sector. That is a sensible move, but I am vexed that the Department has given itself - and only itself - all of the power to place and, therefore, move the goalposts. It is in the interests of the Assembly to have an independent third party who would provide scrutiny and make recommendations that would be binding on the Department.

Who should set the accounting conventions? In the Assembly, we have two candidates: the Public Accounts Committee and the Finance and Personnel Committee. Externally, there is the Financial Reporting Advisory Board, which is, in essence, appointed by the Treasury. Amendments No 4 and No 5 propose that the latter body would, in effect, be the independent body.

When the equivalent Bill was debated in Committee at Westminster, it was proposed that a national accounts commission be set up to be the independent body to set the standards and oversee the Treasury's actions. That proposal was strongly supported by the Conservatives, by the Liberal Democrats and by the other parties, and it was also, I understand, supported quite widely on the Labour Back Benches. However, it was defeated by the Government. The debate at Westminster highlighted the issue, and I wish to bring the same issue to the attention of the House.

The compromise arrived at in Westminster was that a body selected by the Treasury would be consulted. The wording in the Westminster Bill was that:

"The Treasury shall consult a group of persons who appear to the Treasury to be appropriate to advise on financial reporting principles and standards.

(2) Before selecting a group for the purpose of subsection (1) the Treasury shall consult the Comptroller and Auditor General."

The effect of those sections was to bring the body known as the Finance Reporting Advisory Board into position as the body to be consulted. The point was made in Committee that the nature and name of that body could change and that, therefore, it was not sensible for the legislation to prescribe the name of the body precisely. That is sensible, and I agreed with the Minister's recommendation on that matter.

4.15 pm

The two amendments which move on from my amendment to clause 7 involve inserting separate clauses, but they refer back to clause 7 and its operation. Amendment No 4 has been put down by the Minister, further to discussions with the Committee. Amendment No 5, which I have tabled, is very similar to the Minister's amendment but goes a little further in terms of the power that it gives to the independent body.

The Minister's amendment precisely parallels section 24 of the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000, as passed at Westminster. The fact that the Finance and Personnel Committee here persuaded the Minister to move this amendment is perhaps not as much the success that we thought it to be at the time, because it does no more than bring into our Bill a provision that was already in the Bill passed at Westminster.

The House should be concerned that our Bill, as originally tabled, made no provision whatsoever for this independent body to be involved, even in the consultative role that is proposed. That implies that the Department did not want any independent body to scrutinise its setting of accounting policies, and that is regrettable. In the interest of open government and transparency, it is exceedingly important that we have an effective form of independent scrutiny.

Consequently, having examined amendment No 4 moved by the Minister, I put down my amendment, which is amendment No 5 on the list. It takes the proposals that were made in his amendment further. Where he has used the words

"the Department shall consult the group of persons"

I have said:

"the Department shall take full account of all recommendations made by the group of persons".

While mulling over the matter at the weekend, I felt that I had perhaps not worded my amendment strongly enough and that the words "shall abide by the recommendations" might be more appropriate. Nonetheless, I believe that the tighter parameters set down by my amendment are preferable to those in amendment No 4. However, it has been drawn to my attention that the drafting of amendment No 5 is slightly incomplete and would be improved if under (b) it said:

"the Department shall consult with and take full account of all recommendations".

Therefore if my amendment is successful today, it is my intention at the Further Consideration Stage to move a minor tweaking amendment to insert those extra words, which would improve the sense and effect of my amendment.

The key point of principle here is to ensure that there is an independent body which has some teeth and which would oversee the way in which the Department is carrying out its remit to set the parameters for accounts and pull them together. There are various possibilities: this power could be vested in the Public Accounts Committee; we could give further power to the Finance and Personnel Committee; a new independent body could be set up; or we could use the existing - more or less independent - body, although I raise the caveat that it is selected by the Treasury. In moving my amendments I am, in effect, airing the various possibilities.

Amendment No 5, which uses the existing body and puts it in a position where the Department must take full account of its recommendations, sets a reasonably good standard for independent scrutiny of the activities of the Department. I therefore urge the House to support my amendment in preference to amendment No 4, moved by the Minister. I also reiterate my support for amendments No 2, No 3, and No 6.


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