Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 2 April 2001 (continued)
I certainly was not sacked. I discovered that I was not a number cruncher, so I gave up.
During that time - 25 years ago - I carried out audits at very small companies. Although Sir Reg Empey has said that the average cost of an audit for a small company is between £1,000 and £1,500, that is not a true picture. I recall the amount of work and staff time that companies had to devote to having the paperwork ready for our arrival. Therefore the real cost, including that of staff time, is much higher than £1,500.
I welcome the fact that the limit for a compulsory audit has been raised from £350,000 to £1 million. This could free 3,000 companies from the burden of an audit. The Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee brought departmental officials to one of its meetings and questioned them closely about this, and we were satisfied that this was a good move. I am also content because I do not feel that an audit system for a small company works. The number of cases of skulduggery unveiled through an audit is very small. I asked the officials to tell me when a company was last prosecuted as a result of the findings of an auditor, and nobody could remember. Therefore, the audit of small companies seems to be a totally unnecessary piece of red tape which is burdening those companies and achieving nothing. I also welcome the removal of the need for a special exemption motion for dormant companies.
Representatives of small businesses, in a recent presentation to the Assembly, said that the two factors that drag down the expansion of small companies in Northern Ireland are red tape and bank charges. If the Minister can make a dent in those two problems, he will achieve real growth in this economy because, as the hon Member for South Belfast, Dr McDonnell said, the real potential for increased employment in the Province is through small companies.
According to a fascinating statistic in the United States, the country's top 100 companies have had a net gain of nil in employment there. The huge surge in economic growth in the United States has been almost entirely in the field of small companies with fewer than 500 staff. In that country, one of the main reasons for that has been the cutting of red tape and the ending of unnecessary bureaucracy. If this is a step in the right direction, it is very much to be welcomed.
Sir Reg Empey:
I have listened carefully to hon Members' comments, and I thank them. This is a deregulatory measure. I appreciate that much of what the Government ask the private sector to do constitutes a direct charge on those companies because time is money. However, it is essential that we find out certain pieces of information in order to provide a service, though we have been searching the entire system for ways to reduce the burden. I take the point that Dr McDonnell and Mr Wells made about the costs involved. The figures quoted here are, I suppose, the sort of invoice figure that you might expect, but, as Members have said, they do not take into account management time and preparation et cetera.
I would not want the impression to be given that we are trying to relieve companies of the requirement to produce accounts, because companies need to know what is happening for their own benefit. In many cases lenders require certain information, and it may very well be that lenders will require audits. If that is the case, it is a matter for an individual company, but some small companies do not require this audit and there has been no significant evidence of large-scale fraud. The proposal is, therefore, appropriate.
Members may ask why we do not go further. We may go further, but we will wait for the outcome of the review. Mr Wells also referred to bank charges. I attended a recent seminar in the Long Gallery at which these matters were highlighted. I am very conscious of them and, at the moment, we are considering approaching the banks. One gentleman who was at that seminar earns a living by saving his clients from losing money through bank charges. This would not be possible if overcharging did not take place. How else could he make a living out of saving companies' money?
Something is not quite right, and that will have to be followed up vigorously. As Mr Wells said, any charge on a company is money directly off the bottom line; it is money that is not available to reinvest or available for research or any form of development. Therefore we are obliged to try to find ways of simplifying matters and assisting these companies. This would be far better than having to go through a complicated grant procedure that involves significant costs to the public and even further regulation. If we can make things more cost- effective, everybody will benefit. I hope these Regulations will make a good start.
If I have not responded to all relevant questions, I will pick them up later. I appreciate the support voiced by the Committee and other hon Members for these measures which I hope will make some small contribution to the added efficiency of many of our small businesses.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Companies (1986 Order) (Audit Exemption) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2001 be approved.
The Chairperson of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (Mr McClelland):
I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the findings and conclusions contained in the first report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges - 'Inquiry into the Possible Appointment of an Assembly Commissioner for Standards' (01/00/R) - and calls for all appropriate arrangements to be put in place by the Assembly Commission, the Speaker's Office and other relevant Assembly Committees to ensure implementation of the recommendations.
As Chairperson of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, I am pleased to bring before the Assembly the Committee's first report, which contains the findings and conclusions stemming from its inquiry into the possible appointment of an Assembly commissioner for standards. I am particularly pleased that the report enjoys the unanimous support of the Committee, and I am grateful to the members of the Committee for their assistance, hard work and contribution. I also thank the various witnesses, most of whom were from legislatures throughout the British Isles, who attended the Committee to provide oral evidence.
Following its establishment on 15 December 1999, the Committee received several complaints from Assembly Members about the conduct of other Members. The Committee carried out initial investigations of these complaints, but it soon became apparent that the investigation process had certain limitations and disadvantages. It was unclear what constituted a complaints investigation, and there was no provision for detailed investigations. The Committee was not empowered to decide what further action the Assembly should take when a complaint was upheld. Despite its powers to investigate, the fact that the Committee had no clear sanctions or penalties to recommend to the Assembly in that event tended to limit its operation and effectiveness.
It was against this background that in June 2000 the Committee resolved to undertake an inquiry into the possible appointment of an Assembly commissioner for standards who would be responsible for investigating complaints against Members of the Assembly. In the course of this inquiry the Committee considered and reported on the role and responsibilities of an Assembly commissioner for standards; his or her relationship with the Committee; the arrangements for reporting the findings of the Committee to the Assembly; the powers of, and sanctions that could be recommended by, the Committee; and the impact of the Committee's findings on the Standing Orders of the Assembly.
In conducting the inquiry, the Committee heard evidence from a wide range of individuals from Parliaments, Assemblies and other organisations with experience and expertise in parliamentary standards and privileges and the parliamentary investigation of complaints.
The Committee took evidence from, among others, representatives of the House of Commons Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Welsh Assembly's Independent Adviser on Standards of Conduct, the Scottish Parliament's Standards Committee and the Dáil Éireann's Select Committee on Members' Interests. The Committee also examined several systems for dealing with complaints against parliamentarians in a wide range of Parliaments, Assemblies, and legislatures in different countries. I shall outline the Committee's key findings and conclusions in each of the areas that I mentioned. Some of my Committee Colleagues will speak in greater detail about the issues arising from the inquiry.
The fundamental issue considered by the Committee was whether it would be appropriate, in principle and in practice, to recommend to the Assembly that a commissioner for standards should be appointed to investigate complaints against Members. The Committee was mindful of the problems and difficulties that it had encountered while investigating the small number of complaints against Members that were referred to it. The evidence given by several witnesses reinforced those concerns.
Most witnesses were strongly in favour of having some kind of system to investigate complaints against Members that was independent of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. One reason put forward was that it was important for the credibility of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and of the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that complaints against Members were investigated - and seen to be investigated - in a fair, unbiased and non-party- political way. It was also felt that the establishment of an independent investigative process would increase public confidence in the commitment of the Committee and the Assembly to ensuring the maintenance of high levels of probity on the part of Members in conducting their affairs as public representatives, inside and outside the Assembly.
The Committee concluded that it should recommend to the Assembly that a commissioner for standards be appointed to investigate complaints against Members. If the Assembly endorses the Committee's recommendation that there should be a commissioner for standards, we shall approach the Assembly Commission to discuss the process of recruiting a commissioner and decide on the terms and conditions of employment associated with such an appointment. I urge the Commission to work closely with the Committee to make an appointment as soon as possible.
Having determined the need for a commissioner for standards, the Committee felt that the primary role of the commissioner should be to investigate complaints against Members. It is anticipated that the type of complaints that would be referred to the commissioner for standards would routinely include matters relating to alleged breach of privilege; specific complaints about Members in relation to the registration or declaration of interests; and matters relating to the conduct of Assembly Members, including specific complaints in relation to alleged breaches of the Assembly's code of conduct. To ensure the effectiveness of the commissioner, the Committee agreed that, if necessary, it would use its powers under Standing Orders to send for persons, papers and records.
The Committee, in considering the role and responsibility of a commissioner for standards, focused directly on the importance of having an independent means of investigating complaints against Members. That is crucial if Members are to be sure that complaints against them will be investigated in an impartial and non-party-political way. The Committee also considered that the appointment of a commissioner to investigate complaints would promote the credibility and integrity of the investigative process, the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The Committee decided that the limited role proposed for the Assembly commissioner for standards should be subject to review in the light of experience. However, the Committee did not rule out an extension of the commissioner's role and responsibilities to include making recommendations about sanctions and penalties, advising and guiding Members on the registration and declaration of interests, and compiling, maintaining and making accessible the Register of Members' Interests.
The Committee spent a considerable time examining the relationship between the commissioner and the Committee on Standards and Privileges. The Committee wished to strike a balance between the independence of the commissioner and the authority of the Committee and, ultimately, the Assembly.
Key witnesses all stressed the importance of the commissioner's being, and being seen to be, independent from the Committee and the Assembly when investigating complaints. That independence was seen to be crucial to enable the commissioner to investigate complaints in an unbiased and fair manner. That is also important to promote public confidence in the investigative process.
In taking evidence, the Committee also noted that several individuals who investigate complaints in other Parliaments and Assemblies had resigned directorships and memberships of political parties, or other affiliations, if that was considered to prejudice their perceived impartiality. The Committee intends to discuss that matter in detail with the Assembly Commission, if the Assembly agrees that a commissioner for standards should be appointed.
The Committee agreed that the commissioner would report his or her findings on all complaints to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. The commissioner's report would also be submitted to the Assembly under cover of a report from the Committee.
As part of its inquiry, the Committee also considered the extent of the powers of the Committee and the sanctions or penalties that it can recommend to the Assembly. The Committee was concerned that, although it had some power to investigate Members, there was a lack of clarity on what, if any, sanctions or penalties the Committee could recommend that the Assembly impose on a Member if a complaint were upheld by the Committee.
The Committee was clear that in serious cases it is essential that it should be able to recommend the imposition of some kind of sanction or penalty. If that is not the case, the process of investigating and reporting on complaints will be of limited value and the concept and practice of the Assembly's regulating its affairs will seem to be ineffective.
The issue of penalties and sanctions against Members is referred to in section 43(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and there is provision in the Act for those powers to be included in the Assembly's Standing Orders. Unfortunately that has not yet been done. The Committee is therefore strongly of the view that Standing Orders and, indeed, the guide to the rules relating to the conduct of Members should be amended to empower the Committee to recommend the imposition of a limited range of sanctions or penalties in cases where a serious complaint is upheld against a Member.
If Standing Orders were amended to incorporate the provisions of the Act, the Committee would be in a position, when required, to recommend to the Assembly that a Member be excluded from proceedings and/or that his or her rights and privileges be withdrawn for that period of exclusion. A recommendation of that nature from the Committee would be made if a Member failed to register an interest, financial or otherwise, failed to declare an interest before taking part in proceedings relating to such an interest or breached the rules of advocacy.
In proposing these changes to the Assembly's Standing Orders, the Committee acknowledges the need to discuss the issues raised with the Committee on Procedures. I encourage members of that Committee to support our desire to put in place arrangements that will ensure implementation of my Committee's recommendations.
The Committee believes that the recommendations in this report will go a long way towards demonstrating to our electorate the commitment of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the Assembly itself to the highest level of probity on the part of Members in conducting their business inside and outside the Assembly. I sincerely hope that the report will receive widespread support in the Assembly.
Finally, I thank the Clerk to the Committee, who is ill at this time, the replacement Clerk and the staff for their hard work and valuable support in helping the Committee to present the report. I invite Members to support the motion.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (Mr Beggs):
The Committee agreed unanimously that there is a need to appoint an Assembly commissioner for standards. The Committee also made recommendations on the role of the commissioner and the way that role would interact with the Committee to maintain standards and public confidence in the Assembly.
I express my appreciation to the witnesses who appeared before the Committee, and I would like to particularly thank the Clerk of the Committee, Mr John Torney, and his staff for their work throughout the evidence-gathering period. I valued their guidance and assistance, and I hope that John will make a full and speedy recovery.
At the outset, the Committee on Standards and Privileges received a stream of mostly minor unsubstantiated complaints against Members. Most of those were dealt with speedily. It became apparent that there would be practical difficulties if the Committee had to gather evidence for a more serious case. There is a need for clarification and certainty about how detailed investigations should be carried out and what sanctions the Committee could recommend.
It is essential that we progress and improve our system of regulation. I will be concentrating on the relationship between the commissioner and the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
It is important to strike a balance between the independence of the commissioner, when investigating and reporting to the Committee, and the authority of the Committee, and indeed, the Northern Ireland Assembly, in making the final judgement and determining the appropriate penalty.
Those who investigate complaints must be unbiased and fair and must also be perceived to be so. The Committee believes that it would not be possible for a Member to carry out the role of commissioner because of the political or other relevant affiliations that might bring their impartiality into question.
We propose that, in order to maintain public confidence in the process, all complaints be passed to the Clerk of the Committee on Standards and Privileges in writing. The Clerk would log the complaints, pass them to the commissioner for consideration and then advise the Committee, which would have no role in sifting complaints.
In a case where the commissioner determines, on the basis of a preliminary investigation, that the complaint is of a trivial nature, he will advise the Committee that no further action is required. That will minimise the possible abuse of the system by political opponents and maintain maximum public confidence.
Members agreed that the Committee on Standards and Privileges should not question decisions by the commissioner in trivial cases.
When the commissioner determines that a detailed investigation is required, we would request that the Clerk and the Committee be advised of the likely timescale and the progress that is being made. Several witnesses recommended that, in order to protect the Member under scrutiny, the Committee, and the commissioner, would submit no intermediate reports because such information could lead to ill-informed press speculation about the final outcome.
The commissioner will submit the completed report to the Committee and, having given the commissioner independence in making the report, we recommend that the authority to make a judgement remains with the Committee and the Northern Ireland Assembly. As in other places, the Committee should be empowered to request additional information from the commissioner and to question additional witnesses should it decide that that is necessary. The Committee will then assume responsibility for publishing the commissioner's report, as well as its covering report.
Lessons may be learned in the future and the Committee has, therefore, included in its report the need to review practices. I recommend the Committee's report as the best practice that we are aware of, considering our limited experience to date. I urge Members to support the motion, and the relevant Committees and the Assembly Commission to progress this matter as quickly as possible.
This is the Committee's first report and if it is implemented it will serve to underscore the need for Assembly Members to ensure the highest level of probity in conducting their affairs inside and outside the Chamber. There have been remarkably few complaints made to the Committee since it was set up.
I visited the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament over the past couple of months. The people there were amazed when they heard how few complaints had been levelled against Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In the Scottish Parliament complaints are running at about one a week, and in the Welsh Assembly the relevant Committee is kept very busy dealing with complaints. However, there have only been five or six minor complaints in the entire lifespan of the Northern Ireland Assembly and none have occurred in the past 18 months. When preparing for this speech I tried to think why this was. I can only think that it is because of the calming influence of the DUP in the Assembly - it ensures that everyone is extremely well behaved. There is absolutely no doubt that had the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly had the benefit of the sanctifying influence of Dr Paisley and William McCrea, they too would be very well behaved.
The report has the unanimous support of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. We are grateful to all the witnesses - including those from the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly - for their evidence. I thank the Committee staff for their assistance in the inquiry. We should place on record our debt of gratitude to John Torney, who, unfortunately, has been ill recently. I understand that he is recovering well. The document is a testimony to his efforts. My Colleague Mr Beggs explained the relationship between the commissioner and the Committee. My comments will concentrate briefly on the proposed arrangements for reporting the findings of the Committee to the Assembly following investigations by the commissioner for standards.
Following the commissioner's investigation into a complaint, the findings and recommendations will be presented to the Committee through the Clerk of Standards. The Committee will report that either the outcome of the case is trivial in nature and requires only preliminary investigation - indeed, that has been the situation with all the complaints that have been made to date - or that the results are such that the complaint requires a detailed investigation. In the case of trivial complaints the Committee will report the commissioner's findings to the Assembly. That will be accompanied by a statement confirming that the Committee accepts the commissioner's recommendation and that no further action is required.
In the case of complaints that require detailed investigation, the commissioner's report will be submitted to the Assembly under cover of a report from the Committee on Standards and Privileges. The Committee's covering report will detail its consideration of the commissioner's findings and conclusions, its decision on whether the Committee has upheld the complaint and a recommendation to the Assembly on the appropriate sanction or penalty.
It is essential that the highest standards of probity be maintained in the Assembly. They must also be seen to be maintained. Therefore an independent commissioner is vital. There are those who have argued that, because of the level of complaints, perhaps we do not need a commissioner. The presence of a commissioner should ensure that there will be few complaints. That person must be someone of the highest possible standing - someone who is totally independent and impartial. The appointment will underscore people's confidence in the Assembly. I believe that we will continue to have a situation where there will be little cause for complaint.
I urge Members to support the motion in the name of Mr McClelland. It has the unanimous support of members of the Committee. It has been a smoothly run and amicable Committee, and we agreed on almost every point of the report. I highly recommend it to the House, and I hope that it will have the unanimous support of everyone here today.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom cuidiú leis an rún agus mo thacaíocht a thabhairt don tuairisc ó Choiste Caighdeán agus Pribhléidí an Tionóil. I too endorse the report and support the motion from the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Members have outlined the broad role of the Committee. It deals with matters of privilege for Assembly Members, the work of the Clerk of Standards and the arrangements for compiling and maintaining the Register of Members' Interests. The Committee's role also involves the consideration of complaints relating to the registration and declaration of Members' interests, the conduct or misconduct of Members, and breaches of the code of conduct for Members.
When the Committee on Standards and Privileges considered the small number of complaints referred to it, it became clear that there was no clear outline, guideline or procedure on how the Committee should proceed to investigate a complaint. The investigative powers of the Committee were not clearly defined.
I will focus on the range of sanctions which may be applied to a Member if a complaint is made against him. Neither the Standing Orders of the Assembly nor the Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members empowers the Committee to recommend a sanction if a complaint is made against a Member. Standing Orders enable the Committee to investigate complaints which have been referred to it and to summon Members to respond to the complaint.
Section 43 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 allows for Standing Orders to include sanctions against Members, but our Standing Orders do not, at present, make provision for such action. The Act allows for Standing Orders to make provision for the exclusion of Members from proceedings and the withdrawal of their rights and privileges during exclusion.
In considering this issue together with the role of the Assembly commissioner, how he would work with the Committee and how the Committee would report to the Assembly, we heard very useful evidence from other sources. These included representatives from the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament. Their evidence was particularly useful because, fairly recently, these institutions have also had to deal with the issue of standards and privileges and the investigation of complaints.
We also had witnesses from Dáil Éireann, the Select Committee on Members' Interests and the House of Commons. We heard particularly useful evidence from Elizabeth Filkin, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in the House of Commons.
Having considered the range of evidence, the Committee concluded that, in its report to the Assembly, it should recommend that the Standing Orders be amended - in particular, Standing Order 57 - to enable the Committee, when a complaint has been investigated by the commissioner and the commissioner has reported, to recommend to the Assembly that sanctions be imposed. The Committee also recommended that these sanctions should be particularly applicable in cases where there has been an allegation that a Member has failed to register certain interests, or to declare such interests while taking part in proceedings, and where a Members is alleged to have breached the rule of advocacy or the Code of Conduct for Members. It would also be necessary to amend the Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members to accommodate the Committee's recommendations to the Assembly in cases where sanctions may be imposed. Therefore, I recommend that the Assembly support the motion and accept the report.
I thank, in particular, the Committee staff and those who provided us with very useful evidence. Most witnesses came to visit us in Parliament Buildings, thus making it much more convenient. Go raibh maith agat.
As a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, I am pleased to support the motion. As has been said, the aim is to ensure the highest levels of integrity in the conduct of affairs both inside and outside the Assembly. It is unfortunately the case that in recent years there have been several instances of behaviour by members of other bodies, namely the House of Commons and Dáil Éireann, which have come to the attention of the general public for all the wrong reasons. This Assembly is a new authority, and now is the time to say that wrongdoing is totally unacceptable.
The highest standards are expected of public representatives, and rightly so. We must put in place a system whereby wrongdoing by Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly will not be tolerated, and neither will unwarranted allegations of wrongdoing. It is regrettable that we have to consider a system of sanctions and penalties, while at the same time hoping that they will never have to be implemented.
I accept that in the event of our agreeing to the appointment of a commissioner, it is necessary to give some teeth to a revised Code of Conduct. Putting all these arrangements in place will need much further work, not least by way of consultation with other interested parties. It is important that the Assembly Commission and other Assembly Committees, such as the Committee on Procedures, are actively involved in this consultation process. I urge those interested parties to work with our Committee to secure the full implementation of our recommendation.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the staff of the Committee for their very dedicated work in helping members to draw up this report. I thank our Chairman, Deputy Chairman and the members of the Committee for working harmoniously together. I also thank the range of witnesses who contributed to our work. In conclusion, I thank the Clerk of the Committee, Mr John Torney, who has been taken unwell recently. I join with others to wish John a speedy recovery. I recommend that Members support the motion.
I am very pleased with the response to the report, and I thank everyone who contributed to the debate. The Committee decided that in presenting the report to the Assembly, it would attempt to cover the key sections of the report among members in some depth, and so demonstrate the cross-party support for the recommendations. In particular, I thank my Committee Colleagues for their contribution and support during the debate.
My Deputy Chairman, Mr Roy Beggs, gave us a very helpful explanation of how a commissioner for standards would work alongside the Committee on Standards and Privileges. He quite rightly stressed the crucial need for the commissioner to be able to investigate complaints in an unbiased and fair way, and so to ensure public confidence in the Committee's investigative process.
Mr Wells commented on the small number of complaints. I hope that he is not signalling in any way that that will change in the near future. He spoke on, among other things, the arrangements for reporting the findings of the Committee following an investigation by the commissioner. In doing so, he helpfully re-emphasised the role of the Assembly in the self-regulation of Members.
I want to say a brief word about the opportunity or facility to appeal against a decision reached by the Assembly. The Committee considered this issue at the time of the inquiry and agreed that, at present, the best system for the Assembly is to be self-regulatory and operate self-discipline, as the Members are best able to weigh up and evaluate the gravity of the offence. The Committee believes that it is the responsibility of Members to maintain the good name and integrity of the Assembly.
Mr McNamee covered on behalf of the Committee, and quite rightly stressed, the important issue of the powers or sanctions that can be recommended by the Committee to the Assembly in the event of a complaint against a Member being upheld. It is important to the operational effectiveness of the commissioner and the Committee that provision is made for appropriate sanctions and penalties to be made by the Assembly. This point was again taken up by Mr McCarthy, who helpfully highlighted the impact of the Committee's findings on Standing Orders and the Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members. This shows the importance of the Committee on Standards and Privileges needing to work with other Assembly Committees. I repeat the words of my Colleagues and urge the Committee on Procedures to assist us in the implementation of our recommendations.
Finally, I want again to thank everyone who contributed to the debate and commend the motion to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly approves the findings and conclusions contained in the first report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges -'Inquiry into the Possible Appointment of an Assembly Commissioner for Standards' (01/00/R) - and calls for all appropriate arrangements to be put in place by the Assembly Commission, the Speaker's Office and other relevant Assembly Committees to ensure implementation of the recommendations.
The sitting was suspended at 12.56 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) -
Question, 11 standing in the name of Mr Hilditch, has been withdrawn.
asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister whether they have asked the North/South Ministerial Council to consider the introduction of legislation to control the importation of animals from Great Britain during the current outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
The First Minister (Mr Trimble):
No. The North/South Ministerial Council has no locus in relation to legislation. However, one of the first protective measures introduced by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development when the disease was confirmed in Great Britain was to ban the import into Northern Ireland of all live susceptible animals from Great Britain.
That was implemented on 21 February 2001 and banned the import of cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. It was extended on 28 February to include horses. The ban on all these animals will stay in place while the disease risk from such imports remains high.
In addition to this internal United Kingdom ban, the European Union imposed a ban on the export of all live susceptible animals and their products to the whole of the United Kingdom. None of these animals or products can, therefore, legally enter the Republic of Ireland directly.
A meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council's agriculture sector is planned for 6 April to consider the issues of mutual concern arising from the foot-and-mouth-disease outbreak in order to supplement the obvious ongoing co-operation. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is satisfied that it has adequate and sufficient powers to control the importation of animals from Great Britain during the outbreak of the disease.
At the outset of the foot-and-mouth-disease crisis, while the Agriculture Minister was able to do something, she told us that she was powerless to stop the movement of livestock at that point, or even earlier when we first knew of the outbreak in Britain. Considering this is an all-Ireland situation, I feel that the North/South Ministerial Council should have a role in both examining this trend to address it for the future and stopping the movement of livestock from Britain to this island.
The First Minister:
The simple reason for that is that a ban was imposed as soon as the disease was detected. However, let us also be realistic about this. We are dealing with the British Isles and a common travel area. Within that area - absent of a health risk - there is no limitation on travel. Let us also remember that this problem arose in Armagh and in Louth solely because of the illegal animal trade and smuggling that characterises that area.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Mr Savage):
Do the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister agree that there is an urgent need to raise animal health standards in the Republic of Ireland to ensure that its standards of animal health and welfare are at least equal to those of the industry in Northern Ireland? Will they further agree that much greater efforts must now be placed on the control and eradication of the smuggling of livestock between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and vice versa?
The First Minister:
I agree entirely. One thing we may find coming out of this unhappy episode is that there will now be a much greater realisation, particularly in the Republic of Ireland, of the need to deal with the illegal trade and to raise the measures as regards controls and safeguards to the same standards as those that exist here.
Mr B Hutchinson:
The North/South Ministerial Council has no legislative powers in either jurisdiction. Can the First Minister tell the House if there have been discussions about the prevention of the illegal movement of animals around the country? What measures, both North and South, will be taken to prevent it?
The First Minister:
Over the course of the previous couple of weeks the Member will have seen that there has been close, practical co-operation between the Departments of Agriculture here and in the Republic of Ireland. The issue will come up for discussion at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting on 6 April. One encouraging matter has been the response in the Republic of Ireland to this, particularly the suggestions I have seen from the Irish Government on how to tighten up on the illegal trade and increase the level of safeguards there. That is promising. It would be convenient if we could co-ordinate the measures that are taken in regard to the illegal trade through a mechanism such as that.
Discussions with United States Administration
asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what follow-up plans are to be set in place following the recent discussions with the new Administration of the United States of America.
The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):
During our recent visit we had an opportunity to meet with President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Members of Congress. We provided a briefing on progress made on the Programme for Government and the outstanding political issues still to be resolved. Follow-up action will be undertaken at official level via the Northern Ireland Bureau with a view to ensuring that co-operative linkages between Northern Ireland Departments and their USA counterparts are developed in ways that promote a practical understanding of our overall objectives.
Does the Deputy First Minister agree with me that it is important that these discussions move on from political matters to those of inward investment and how to assist Northern Ireland's economy? Is it the intention of the First and Deputy First Ministers, perhaps through the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington, to make further detailed arrangements for liaison on the subject of inward investment, which was the norm in previous presidencies?
The Deputy First Minister:
The Member will be aware that the First Minister and I engaged in what we regarded as an onerous but successful roadshow in the United States some time ago. As part of the briefing that we gave on the implementation of the Programme for Government to the United States Administration we emphasised the continuing importance of American investment as a critical factor in securing progress towards a peaceful, inclusive and prosperous society. The importance of establishing strong working linkages with the United States Department of Commerce was registered. It was fully accepted by those senior members of the Administration to whom we spoke.
During informal - and I stress the word "informal" - discussions in the United States I was made aware of possible plans for an American investment conference in the autumn organised by non-governmental groups. I will probably have more information about that later this week. I will keep the Member and the House informed.