Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 22 February 1999 (continued)
Mr C Wilson:
I join in the praise for Mr P Robinson and the other members of the Shadow Commission for their excellent work in presenting the report to the House. Mr Robinson helped us all to understand their relationship to the Assembly and what he described as the relationship between quantity surveyor and architect.
My thoughts on that are that the client - in this case the electorate in Northern Ireland - did not get what the architect promised. When the chief architects in the company, Mallon and Trimble, were laying out their specifications and plans, the senior partner, Mr Trimble, promised the electorate that the steelwork for this new edifice at Stormont would be based on decommissioned weapons. There is little hope of that now, and one wonders what we are to build upon. Will it be empty promises or Mr Taylor's assertion that he would be prepared to accept a pledge from Gen de Chastelain and we do not need metal or steelwork on the site?
We need a new set of plans, new foundations and lasting structures that will be built on democracy rather than on the nonsense that has been presented to us to date.
I am concerned about the spiralling cost that is starting to unfold before the eyes of Members, and indeed the public. In addition to the £36 million that Mr Robinson laid out this morning, there is, as Mr Sammy Wilson has said, the additional burden of costs resulting from the Ministries. That adds £90 million to the £36 million.
I was not aware until Mr Robinson answered my question earlier that a substantial additional amount is required by the First and Deputy First Ministers to service their office within the Assembly. As part of that, a large amount will be spent on the new Civic Forum. I have not been told exactly how much that will cost or of who will foot the bill. The one thing that is certain is that the money will all come out of the block grant. The idea is that there are little pockets of money coming from different sources. At the end of the day there will be concern and the public will ask questions.
As Mr Robinson has said, we are tasked with ensuring that, within the remit of the shadow Commission, the money is spent wisely. I entirely agree with the comments by my colleague Mr Roche that perhaps savings could be made in the area of research. I assure Mr McCartney that when it comes to my party, the money that is spent on research will be spent wisely. We will not do as some Members of Parliament do and squander money on second-rate advice and second-rate research. We shall go for the very best.
My wife is not getting any of it, anyway.
Mr C Wilson:
So they tell me, Bob. [Interruption]
The Initial Presiding Officer:
Mrs E Bell:
I thank Members for their praise of the work which has been done on their behalf. From the Initial Presiding Officer, who chaired our meetings, to Members and staff, it was a great team effort. We all worked together, and the result is the report.
My colleague and I will sum up and, let us hope, address some concerns. I will leave the contentious issue of costs and the equality issue to Mr Fee. I agree with Alban Maginness that cost is a major issue, but as he said, the creation of a new democratic institution will involve new costs. We need the solid infrastructure that was mentioned, and if we do not have an infrastructure that works with the people who put us here, there is no point in going on.
We are discussing not only Members' salaries and facilities but the whole remit that is laid out in the report - from accommodation and the costs of the Chamber to what we eat when we are not in here, and what we do when we are in our offices. We need all the facilities. Much money is involved but I hope that it will provide best value. That will be borne out over the next four years.
As Members have said, we must also bear in mind that after devolution there will be no need for the quangos that people deride so much. There will be no need for the five education and library boards and the health boards and so on. That is another issue to be looked at. The block grant will be a totally different entity. Before running down what we have tried painfully to build up, people should take those things into account.
I am glad that most Members have agreed with the Senior Salaries Review Board motion to be moved by Rev Robert Coulter and Mr Molloy. It is essential that we are not seen to be deciding our own salaries.
"Fair play and opportunity for all" is the comment that was made, I think. We have tried to do that as much as possible with openness and accountability in all our discussions about present staff and the staff that we hope to get after devolution.
We are also looking into the provision of medical facilities, in answer to Alban's query. Mr McCartney can joke about it, but I think it is in quite bad taste. Someone could be taken ill here, including himself, and need instant medical treatment - maybe that is just wishful thinking on some people's part. I want to be very sure that we do have some sort of medical provision in Parliament Buildings for the number of staff that we will have in the future.
I agree wholeheartedly with Mr S Wilson's remarks about tourists. We should have an open and accessible building. Again, the Commission has tried to have the facilities here to do that. I and other Members from North Down, indeed, from all areas, have had parties of school pupils and pensioner groups here every day - some of them are here at the moment - and I know that they have all enjoyed that facility. We always say to the people who come up here to visit us is that it is their building. I hope that is what we will continue to portray.
We are not here because we put ourselves here; we are here because the people put us here. Therefore we must make facilities, we must have the amount of money that it takes to keep this building open and accessible to everyone. The ethos of the building should be kept. I think it was David Trimble who said
"a pluralist Government for a pluralist people".
The building should be open for all people to visit. It is not an ivory tower and never should be.
My colleague will be talking about equality. I will just mention that we did give it due consideration. It is a very important issue and it will form the basis of any appointments or facilities. Everyone is due equal facilities. We have had serious discussions about that and intend to consider it further.
Some of Mr McCartney's remarks were political. In reply, I say that the Shadow Commission is an objective, functional body. We work on the realistic figures of 108 Members and 10 Departments. We do not go into the political analysis but try to provide what will be required. Over the next four years constituents can see whether we have given best value. If they think that we have spent too much they can use their vote as they see fit. The figures that we had were projections.
There may be some disquiet among civil servants about how they will be treated after devolution. Will all the jobs be advertised or will some staff be automatically transferred because of their present attachment?
Mrs E Bell:
As was mentioned this morning, since we started in shadow mode staff have been seconded to the Assembly. Only when we become a fully corporate body will we have the power to recruit. That is when our open recruitment policy will begin and when positions in the Assembly will be open to all. As Mr Peter Robinson has said, we have had a review to monitor our current staff. If there is an imbalance we shall look at it.
Denis Haughey is right when he says that there has to be a clear and explicit dividing line about the estate.
We have clearly shown that we are aware of that and that we will look at it. We will have negotiations with the relevant section of the incoming Department of the Environment. We have to make sure that we know what we are responsible for.
In reply to Francie Molloy may I say that although we did not comment on the crèche earlier, the crèche and gym facilities are just as important as any others, and we are looking at them. When everything has been rationalised, a survey will be done, and we will inform Members of the situation in due course.
I ask Members to accept the report.
I should like to explain why the Commission members are sitting where they are and why Peter Robinson, when he presented the report this morning, sat at the top table and took questions there. The Commission members have agreed explicitly that they will not follow party political agendas in any sense and that they will, as a body, be responsible to each and every Member. While they are acting as commissioners, they must be seen as independent of party structures. That means that when a Commission report is being discussed, they will not sit on their party Benches. That will reinforce the role that the members see for themselves and their relationship with the other members of the Commission.
It will not be possible to deal with the issues that have been raised. First, there is the proposed scale of investment in the research facility. About £700,000 of the £1·8 million is non-recurring capital expenditure and relates to items such as personal computers for staff and Members, the computerisation of Members' constituency offices - a recommendation in the SSRB report - the provision of an annunciator system in the building and the teletext-type service to keep Members up to date with what is happening in the Chamber, wherever they are within this complex.
That is all part of the research and information budget, and these services will be made available in all the Departments of the House. This is not an excessive amount of money. When the Assembly is up and running and begins to legislate, the demands from Members' constituency offices and researchers may strain the research facilities, and we may be under-resourced in this area.
Members asked about the openness and ethos of the House. We are conscientiously recommending that, in future, vacancies here be filled by open advertisement. There was nothing in the original estimates to cover the cost of advertising for a large number of staff, so we have had to build into the budget, from scratch, all the consequential costs of creating a legislature.
Other items that were not included in the original £14 million estimate had to be built into the costs. For example, there was no provision for salaries and wages. The original costs were based on the costs of the Forum, whose members were unsalaried. In addition, there was no provision for office cost allowances, and so 108 times £30,000 had to be included in the budget that we presented.
There was no significant provision for running the Committees, for research, for the publication and stationery demands of the new Assembly, or for pensions. Therefore enormous amounts of essential costs had to be built into the budget which were not included originally and which do not necessarily represent new finance to be taken out of the Northern Ireland block. Many of these costs, such as our salaries, our office costs, allowances and capital expenditure within this building, are currently being incurred, and will simply transfer in the Vote to the Commission's budget.
Over the past five or six months, each member of the Commission has worked hard and effectively and has taken his responsibility seriously - even when that may have been uncomfortable. If Commission members were required to go to London or anywhere else, no matter how inconvenient that was, they did their duty without complaint and outside the glare of publicity.
Many questions have yet to be addressed, but we have made provision for the Assembly to be able to address them effectively and efficiently in the future. The issues of electronic voting, the electronic tabling of motions and Bills and the like have yet to be addressed, but we are putting in place the infrastructure that will allow Members to go down that route if they wish. The provision of information to schools, libraries, isolated rural communities, local government and business has yet to be addressed. We have not worked out the detail of how accessible our systems will be, but we have put the hardware in place to ensure that the Assembly will be an open, transparent, accessible and accountable body.
Much of the cost of the infrastructure, in terms of information technology, will be non-recurring; the recurring element will be in staff training and servicing the computer systems. We shall publish the details of our estimates when we go through the negotiating procedure to secure funds from the Northern Ireland block. We now need the Assembly's approval to continue this work and hope that it will adopt this motion.
Question put and agreed to.
This Assembly approves the report prepared by the Shadow Assembly Commission.
That this Assembly will accept the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body in respect of the salaries and allowances for Ministers and Members. - [Rev Robert Coulter and Mr Molloy]
Rev Robert Coulter:
I move the motion in the full knowledge that I am asking the Assembly to agree to a document that neither Members nor I have seen - the Senior Salaries Review Body's report. At first glance I seem to be asking Members to commit themselves to a set of recommendations that are not before them. They cannot debate the contents or evaluate the ramifications for themselves and their support staff. However, I shall endeavour to explain the reasons for pursuing this somewhat strange line of action.
Members should embrace an important principle at the very beginning of our service in the Assembly. We should be careful to commit ourselves to probity and propriety when dealing with public funds. To do otherwise would be to leave ourselves vulnerable to the accusation of carelessness and impropriety, if not of greed or maladministration.
It is with that in mind that the Commission unanimously agreed to recommend that we accept the decisions of an independent body on the matter of the salaries and allowances for Ministers and Members. No one can then accuse Members of feathering their own nests. We will be accepting a principle of integrity and openness in dealing with public funds that will be the guiding star and a defensive bulwark for all our actions, both corporate and personal.
Someone may ask whether the decision to accept the SSRB recommendation is a decision for all time. We cannot make decisions for any Assembly beyond this present one. The decision will be for this year, and it will be an ongoing commitment for the present membership of the Assembly until the election for the next Assembly. If there are areas of responsibility for which the SSRB has not made any recommendation, it is in the remit of the Commission, under the Act, to consider making provision for office holders. The Commission is determined to consider that.
I bring Members back to the core of the matter. We must be seen by the public to be the dependable custodians of the wealth that they pay in taxes and to dispense that wealth with integrity and equity and in a thoroughly professional manner. For those reasons I ask Members to support the motion and avoid being labelled as "self-made fat cats", even though the physical contours of some of us might justify that designation.
When the Commission asked me to research the food in the House, it required someone to go out front. Members thought that I had more years experience of sampling food than any of the rest and that I was more out front than any of the other members. I used to look after my figure, but since undertaking this research project, I am now looking over it.
When we move the next motion I may suggest an all-party group called the "curved-tie club". If I thought that no one else would take it on, I would propose myself for the chairmanship of that group. Many people from all parties could qualify for membership of that club.
A Chathaoirligh, I second the motion that the Assembly accepts the recommendations of the SSRB. This is the best time to take this decision because we do not know what will be in that report. People expect a rise in salaries, but, regardless of the amount of the rise, it is important that Members do not resort to debating their salaries. It is important that we are open and above board. We do not want to be like the chiefs of the health boards and trusts who awarded themselves salary rises of 30% when nurses do not even have the amount of those rises as salaries.
It is important that the Assembly sets a clear precedent. We can speak only for this Assembly, but we should put down a clear marker that we want it to be open and transparent, that we want to be above board in our dealings. That is why I accept that we should accept the recommendations of the SSRB in advance of its report. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
This might make me sound a little bit like Jim Wells, but I should like to repeat what has been said earlier and express my thanks to the Chairman and the other members of the Commission. I thought that I knew something of the work that was being done in the Commission from the very abbreviated reports that I was receiving from Eileen Bell. It was not until I saw the pile of paper that she had last week and the report that was prepared, which seemed to be about one-fifth of the amount of paper that she was going through, that I realised exactly how much had been done. We clearly owe a considerable debt to the six members of the Commission for the way in which they have worked together to produce an excellent report.
Much of the debate has been about costs, and our salaries are clearly part of that. I was contacted over the weekend by a journalist who asked me about the size of the estimate. I was deeply concerned that Peter Robinson might be ending up in some kind of a stew and that he would get the blame for the costs, so I did my best to say that wherever the blame may lie in terms of the initial, completely inadequate estimates, we need to make it clear that we support the Commission in its work to produce a realistic plan for the way that this Assembly will operate. It will certainly be a costly exercise, but the concept of democracy and of bringing peace to this society is beyond price - except perhaps in respect of the issue that we are discussing.
The thought that we might find ourselves responsible for setting our own salaries is quite horrifying. On behalf of my party colleagues, I fully endorse the recommendation that we should accept the SSRB report, whatever it is, on an ongoing annual basis. Comments will clearly be inevitable in the wider society. There will be all kinds of flak.
I gather that 'Talk Back', the programme that people either love or love to hate, has already given us a run. It was unfortunate that some Members chose to go to 'Talk Back' before they spoke in the House, but perhaps that is inevitable, given the way that some people are carrying on. We certainly need to make it clear that, as Assembly Members, we view ourselves as public servants and, like most of the rest of the public service, will take whatever salary we are determined as being worth and will not set our own salaries or expenses, and will not put ourselves in the problems that some at Westminster get into. In that respect, we are very much part of a partnership with the staff who work with us here and with all those who have contributed to this move towards democracy.
It is clear from the report that there is a great deal to be done in future. I look forward to seeing if the Commission can maintain its high standards when it looks at other matters. The issues of a crèche, IT, research, accommodation and staffing were outlined in the debate and are all serious issues that have to be dealt with.
There will be a major problem with staffing, and we have heard of the necessity for openness. I fully endorse the requirement to proceed by way of public advertisement. I have a question that might be slightly out of order at this stage, but I am not quite sure of the appropriate person to speak for the Commission. Can I have an assurance that those people who are currently seconded to us will remain? Whether they be Clerks or Doorkeepers, they have provided a tremendous service so far, and I hope that, while their numbers are increased in the proper open fashion, we will be able to continue to depend on them as long as they so wish.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
It is for the members of the Commission who are dealing with the motion to reply to that question, if they feel able to do so, during the winding-up speeches.
Like other Members, I agree that it is right and proper for this issue to be settled by an independent body, namely, the Senior Salaries Review Body.
There was a comment about the number of Members in the Chamber. I remind the House that, in the discussions that led to the agreement, my party fought strongly for a 90-member House and not one of 108. Unfortunately ours was the only Unionist voice in support of that. I wish to express my concern at the initial total -
The Member should be reminded that the sixth seat in each constituency might have benefited the Ulster Unionist Party most of all. Certainly the smaller parties were elected on third-in, fourth-in or fifth-in, which, of course, left the Ulster Unionists to take the sixth seat in most cases.
Will the Member concede that that is factually inaccurate? In most cases the sixth seat went to Nationalist parties. The Ulster Unionist Party did not benefit greatly from the sixth seat.
I thank Mr Weir and Mr Ervine for their interventions. The question that was posed by Mr Ervine has been answered by Mr Weir.
The original estimate for this body was £14 million. It seems strange that whoever arrived at that figure forgot about the provision for wages and salaries and perhaps about a few other figures. I can understand minor oversights which might have altered the figure of £14 million slightly, but it was at least naïve if not actually irresponsible to suggest that figure of £14 million in the first place. I have checked this with Mr Robinson, and I understand that that figure was announced before the block grant was calculated.
In her submission on the block grant, the Secretary of State may have found herself working with a figure of £14 million for this body. Whoever calculated that figure has done the Assembly a great disservice, as has the Secretary of State, who accepted it. It would not be out of place for us to lobby at Westminster to have this situation redressed, rather than having to make good that figure from allocations elsewhere in the block grant, as Mr Beggs has pointed out.
Rev Robert Coulter:
I should like to make it clear that civil servants on secondment to the Assembly as support staff will remain in post. Only when they move on will their posts be advertised.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly will accept the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body in respect of the salaries and allowances for Ministers and Members.
That officers in all-party Assembly groups and all-party groups whose membership is open to members of more than one party be required to register the names of the officers of the group and the source and extent of any benefits, financial or in kind, from outside sources which they may enjoy, together with any other relevant gainful occupation of any staff which they may have; and that where a public relations agency provides the assistance the ultimate client should be named. - [The Initial Presiding Officer]
The Initial Presiding Officer:
Members will note that the burden of this motion bears some resemblance to that of the previous motion. Members, whether in groups consisting solely of Members or in conjunction with staff or researchers from outside the Assembly, may wish to form all-party interest groups.
In recent times, concern has been expressed that these groups may include in their membership or receive assistance from lobby groups or other interest groups from a relevant field. Therefore it seemed wise, in the interests of probity and propriety, to draw up regulations to ensure that there could be all-party Assembly groups consisting only of Assembly Members, and all-party groups consisting of Members and others. There should be clear regulations for the establishment of a register of such groups, and this will ensure that there is no impropriety.
I put a proposal to the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer that Members be allowed to form all-party interest groups. After some discussion, this was agreed by the Committee, and that is the proposal that is before the House. It allows Members to establish groups to discuss specific matters, either in all-party Assembly groups consisting entirely of Assembly Members, or in all-party groups which may include outside bodies or individuals.
A copy of the rules relating to such groups has been available to CAPO for some time and has been discussed by it. If agreed, the rules will be reissued to all Members of the Assembly tomorrow so that Members will be aware of them and can use the requisite forms to make applications.
All-party groups may exist in a wide range of issues. Given the number of interest groups, lobby organisations, unions and so on which have come to the Assembly and have been sponsored by Members in recent months to explain their concerns, I have no doubt that Members will be interested in establishing such groups.
The basic qualification for the establishment of groups is that they must be open to all Members to join, if they so wish. When first formed, there must be a minimum number of Assembly Members and the founder members must come from all three political designations in the Assembly. It would not be appropriate to ensure that every party was represented in every group. Some parties might not wish to participate or might not have representatives who wish to participate. However, all parties must be able to join at any time and all three political designations must have representation among the founder members of any such groups.
The purpose of the business motion is to ensure complete probity in relation to the financing of any all-party groups. It will ensure complete financial transparency - or at least it will go as far as one can in setting down regulations to ensure that. It will also help to eliminate misunderstandings or, at worst, actual conflicts of interest.
I advise the Assembly that in conjunction with the motion, documentation has been prepared in respect of a register of Members' interests and that the Committee on Standing Orders is processing this matter, which will be brought to the Assembly in the near future. Therefore the further issue of Members' interests in general being registered will be properly dealt with when the new Standing Orders are in place.
I support the motion and particularly welcome the news that there will be a Members' register to record external financial interests. However, I hope that Members will not confine their entries to purely pecuniary interests, and I encourage Members to include membership of all organisations to which they belong, particularly if those bodies are highly influential and have the capacity to influence decision-making. I am, of course, referring to legal organisations.
Members have a moral responsibility to be entirely open in their associations. We are funded by taxpayers and are expected to represent everyone without bias or preference. Being a member of a society which does not operate open membership, or is at least perceived to be semi-secret or clouded in secrecy, could raise questions for Members.
It would be quite improper for me to single out any particular organisation which has in the past been perceived to have exercised enormous control over people's lives through its operation as a secret, semi-secret or oath-bound society. However, such organisations exist, and some Members may belong to them. Association may be by degree.
This Assembly has the potential to be one of the most democratic and politically inclusive institutions in the free world. However, to ensure that its work is not overshadowed by claims of influence from external organisations that are not open and not democratic, it is important that anyone holding membership of such bodies should declare them in the proposed register. I urge that this be done on a voluntary basis.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I intervene on a point of order. It is important that Members should not become confused. It seems to me that the matters which the Member is addressing are matters relating to the Register of Members' Interests, which is currently under consideration by the Committee on Standing Orders and which will be the subject of a future debate.
My understanding - and Members must not take it as any more than that - is that the Register will refer to non-pecuniary as well as to pecuniary interests. I should not want Members to think that that is in some way related to this motion and this debate, which is about all-party interest groups and influence in that regard.
For the sake of clarity, I urge the Member, to restrict himself to all-party groups and all-party interest groups and to keep his perfectly legitimate questions on the Register of Members' Interests for the debate on that matter.
I do not wish to confuse the Assembly in any way. I totally support the motion and was simply taking the opportunity to influence the rules on the Register. I particularly welcome the fact that non-pecuniary interests will be listed. That is important and in the interests of every Member. I welcome the news you have just given us.
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. I wish to clarify a point. You outlined the terms of reference earlier, and we have gone through those with CAPO on a number of occasions. However, I see that the words
"all-party groups whose membership is open to members of more than one party"
are still included in the motion. I am curious about that. It is confusing.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
Will you please clarify that for me? I did not understand the question.
Why have the words
"open to members of more than one party"
been included in the business motion when it is clear from the terms of reference for all of these groups that they have to be open to all parties? It is an unnecessary addition. It is a small technical point.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
The reason the phrase has been included is that the model which was taken for this approach was the Neill Committee. This is the form of words which was used by that Committee. This was included specifically because it was a matter that the Committee had gone through. It has to be the case - and I emphasise this to take it beyond peradventure - that all these groups must be open to all parties. At their foundation the groups must have a specified number of members. The required number is laid down in the regulations, but it can be changed if it is found necessary to increase or decrease the number from all three designations.
Many details in the regulations are not included in the motion. The purpose of the motion is to set out what is required in broad terms. I apologise if that is not clear.
On a point of information, Mr Presiding Officer. Can you clarify the rules and regulations which will surround these all-party groups? We have a business motion, but we have not had detailed discussions about the regulations that will control them. Will the regulations be coming before the Assembly?
The Initial Presiding Officer:
It is not normal practice to take a point of information in this context as I had already sat down. However, generous to a fault as I am, I will respond to your question. Unfortunately the response may not be the one that you want.
The detailed guidance notes and regulations have been available and have been a matter of discussion in the various party groups since before Christmas. It is not necessary for them to be brought to the Assembly for approval. The purpose of the business motion is to enable us to agree to follow the regulations that were outstanding and had been available for some time. The matter of the Register of Members' Interests will be laid down in Standing Orders.
I hope that Members will understand - from the Commission report debated earlier, for example -that there is a series of regulations which we have had to lay down for the proper conduct of business in the Chamber.
One example is the matter of sponsorship of events by Members and how many people can be brought as visitors at any one time. In a previous sitting Dr Paisley asked how many visitors could be brought into the coffee lounge. From what he said, it looked as if someone was going for the Guinness Book of Records rather than simply providing refreshment for people.
It would be inappropriate for all these detailed practical arrangements to come to the Floor of the House. The detailed regulations, which are not in themselves contentious, are available. They will be issued to Members tomorrow after the completion of this debate.
The motion refers to
"officers in all-party Assembly groups and all-party groups whose membership is open to members of more than one party".
Surely that should read "members of all parties". That is the point Mr Maskey was trying to make. The membership cannot be drawn from Sinn Féin and ourselves because that would exclude Members from the other side of the House. We need clarification: when we refer to all-party groups and to more than one party, we mean "open to all parties".
The Initial Presiding Officer:
The regulations make it clear that a group cannot be registered as all-party if it includes only Members, for example, from the two parties that the Member has referred to. That is because such a group would not include Members from all three political designations. The problem about insisting that all-party groups should have Members from all parties is that some parties might not wish to, or might not be in a position to, facilitate membership of all groups.
There is a difference between the founding of a group and the continuation of a group. One of the earliest issues that the Assembly was lobbied about was breast cancer. A group on that might be set up with founder members from all three political designations, but it might happen that, for various reasons such as pressure of time, other interests, or whatever, subsequently not all the parties or party groups or designations were represented.
Should a group that was open to all parties be made to collapse simply because there was not sufficient interest to enable it to continue even though there had been sufficient interest at its foundation? Generally we think not. Members may find themselves increasingly pulled this way and that by all sorts of genuine interests.
Members' concerns are perfectly reasonable, but when they read the regulations they will see that all those concerns are fully dealt with. If it is the case that, in any way, they are not dealt with, it is open for the matter to be brought back to the Floor of the House for further regulations to be made.
Further to that point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I refer to the phrase "whose membership is open to Members of more than one party". If it were to read "whose membership is open to Members of all parties" nobody would be excluded. We would not be saying that Members from all parties had to join, but that it was open to Members from all parties. That is how I should like it to read.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I understand the Member's concern. The problem is that he has only two options, as do other Members. One is to vote for it, and the other is to vote against it. There is no possibility of tabling an amendment now since Standing Orders make it clear that amendments have to be put down one hour before the commencement of the sitting. Under the current Standing Orders I am not able to take manuscript or other amendments at this time. I am bound by Standing Orders in that regard.
Question put and agreed to.
That officers in all-party Assembly groups and all-party groups whose membership is open to members of more than one party be required to register the names of the officers of the group and the source and extent of any benefits, financial or in kind, from outside sources which they may enjoy, together with any other relevant gainful occupation of any staff which they may have; and that where a public relations agency provides the assistance the ultimate client should be named.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
Previous Adjournment debates gave all Members the opportunity to make maiden speeches on a range of subjects. Members will know that the regulations have changed so that a specific topic is chosen for each Adjournment debate, to which Members will now speak. A number of Members put forward proposals, four of which related to the topic that has been chosen, and one relating to another subject.
However, I am aware that Members learnt of the specific topic only on Friday or Saturday, and that some would have wished to speak had they had more time. I remind Members that there has been a further change to the effect that the deadline for the submission of topics for the next Adjournment debate will be noon and not 5.00 pm on the Thursday prior to the next sitting. If we have the subjects by noon, the choice can be made and the subject of the Adjournment debate can be printed on the Order Paper. Next week's Order Paper will show the subject of the Adjournment debate.
Members whose topic is chosen will already have their names tabled and need do nothing further. Members whose topic has not been chosen may then put their names down.
I have to rule that I can take requests for the Adjournment debate only until the commencement of the sitting. Today I received a substantial number of requests not only prior to but during the sitting. Given that we have completed the rest of our business significantly in advance of the expected time, I am prepared to allow the Adjournment debate to go on until we have completed the list of Members which I now have. However, I am not prepared to take any further names after the start of the Adjournment debate.
If the Assembly is prepared to give leave, I am prepared to complete the list of Members - which I believe is about 10 or 12 - who can speak for up to 10 minutes, rather than take just the first six.
If the Assembly is prepared so to give leave it will ensure that we still finish in advance of the expected time of 6 o'clock.
While not wishing to take away from Adjournment debates, I wonder of what value they are at the moment, apart from the fact that they give Members a chance to make a speech that is recorded. What cognisance is taken of them? How do they increase the general well-being of the community?
The Initial Presiding Officer:
It would not be proper for me to make a judgement of that kind; it is for me to try to facilitate the proceedings in such a way that Members can make their views public. Whether the public or the public administration take due notice of the views of Members is a subject on which I would not be so presumptuous as to speak, much less to rule. I suppose the real answer will become apparent only as time goes on.
By leave of the Assembly, we will proceed to the Adjournment debate on that basis.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. - [The Initial Presiding Officer]
I am glad to see that the topic that I put forward has been selected. It appears to be a very popular topic, judging by the response you have received. It is a very important subject, even if the impact of an Adjournment debate is somewhat limited, as indicated by Mr Foster. Planning covers a wide range of issues.
On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I have just noticed that the clocks do not appear to have started. Whereas sometimes I feel as though I am speaking in some form of suspended animation, it seems that it has become real, for once.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I offer the apologies of the Clerk Assistant in question.
The response to the motion shows that a wide range of planning issues can be dealt with. For example, there are problems with planning permission in rural areas, and, to some extent, there is a clash between that and property development in green belt areas. In view of the wide range of issues, I intend to confine my remarks to one that has caused great concern in my constituency of North Down and across the political spectrum of North Down, albeit that the parties in that area would not be enough to form an interest group.
There has been controversy about property development in North Down recently. Examples are the proposals in relation to Seacourt, Ballymacormick and Helen's Bay, which are being discussed at a meeting today. I was told today that there are planning problems with an application in the Ballyholme Road.
The instance that I want to draw to the Assembly's attention relates to a property at 97-99 Clifton Road that was known as Ardmara. It was a beautiful Victorian building. Towards the end of last year, proposals were submitted by a property developer, Mr Bill Wolsey, who owned the site, to develop it to create a set of apartment blocks.
At that time the local residents, to their credit, fought vigorously against the proposal, arguing that the architectural heritage of that part of Bangor should be preserved. As with most towns, Bangor has a limited stock of Victorian houses. Most of the build in North Down is relatively new, and what heritage we have must be jealously guarded.
Early in the year, the strong efforts and lobbying of local residents seemed to have been successful. It seemed that the property developer's proposals would fail, and he consequently withdrew his planning application. Representations to the local residents suggested that he would not be going ahead with it, and that he would be minded to seek a compromise that would retain the integrity of the building.
Unsurprisingly, the residents concluded that they had secured a victory of sorts, and that their pressure had been successful. Unfortunately, and much to the shame of the developer, this proved to be merely a ruse. On Saturday 13 February at about 6.00 am the property developer moved onto the site with bulldozers and a group of what can only be described as "heavies" and destroyed the Ardmara building. What he did was within the law. No one can quibble about that. There is a clear gap in the law in that, while planning permission is required to build, in circumstances like this property can be demolished and nothing can be done about it.
The demolition greatly distressed the local residents, and it was a clear case of environmental and architectural vandalism which showed the developer's contempt for the feelings of the people of North Down. Problems attended the destruction. Electricity was still being supplied to the building, and in the process of demolition the developer cut some cables, causing a power cut in the area and creating great inconvenience for some residents.
We must learn from the Ardmara situation. There are a number of ways in which buildings can be protected. The first is by way of listing a building, but this has a number of drawbacks. The bulk of Northern Ireland's listed buildings were designated as such prior to 1972. It is a fairly lengthy process. When the Ardmara situation first arose, enquiries were made to see if it could be listed, although it was made clear to the residents that it would take about six months before that could be done.
One of the problems with listing is that as soon as anyone shows any interest in having a building listed, the Department of the Environment immediately contacts the owner of that building to inform them, and that gives the unscrupulous property developers the opportunity to do what might now be described locally as a "Wolsey" and come in and demolish it. Until a building is listed, there is no protection.
Another avenue would be to create a conservation area. In the long term I would like to see a chunk of the Ballyholme and Clifton area described that way, but that is a lengthy process and can take years. It is extremely costly for the Department of the Environment to pursue this option, and it does so reluctantly. However, it does provide much immediate protection for a building under threat.
There needs to be a wider look at Northern Ireland's planning regulations. One partial solution which has been suggested and has worked quite well in Belfast would be to designate parts of a town which have a particular character or are of architectural or historical significance as areas of "townscape character." Twenty areas in Belfast have been so designated, and, although it does not have the same statutory effect as listing or designating a conservation area, it at least puts down a marker to potential developers that the area in question will be one of those considered by the planning authorities when an application is made.
In a recent case in the Knockdene area of Belfast the High Court held that ground there could be taken into consideration, and I understand the local council has plans to declare part of that a "townscape area". A greater degree of strength needs to be given to such a proposal, since it currently has no statutory effect. Indeed, outside Belfast it is of questionable value because of the fact that it is not contained within any of the area plans - unlike Belfast.
The lack of consideration for the wishes of the local people and the fact that they are not formally involved in the process cause great problems in respect of planning matters. A greater degree of planning control should be devolved from this body or from the Government to councils to ensure that decisions are taken by people who know best how to protect their own area.
One other move that should be considered in trying to rectify planning legislation would be to make some kind of formal community involvement an important consideration in major planning development cases. Certain environmental cases currently have to be subjected to an environmental impact assessment. For example, it would determine the impact of a sewerage works on a local community. For major planning developments, we could have a sort of community impact audit as part of the criteria.
In the wider context, in North Down certainly and leaving aside planning, a greater policy issue is population movement. There has been pressure to create more dwellings, but part of that has been the result of an exodus from Belfast over the past few years. An examination needs to be carried out to ensure that there is greater regeneration in areas of Belfast that could accommodate a greater number of people in affordable housing. We have to avoid the problem of so-called infill in which, in areas such as Bangor, too many people are chasing too few properties.
The Government or this devolved institution should carry out a major review of Northern Ireland's planning legislation so that fresh ideas are considered to ensure that the heritage, particularly architectural, environmental heritage is given proper protection.
I thank Mr Weir for telling the Ardmara story, for it allows me to get straight to my point. Without doubt, the issue of planning and development has for many years caused tremendous problems for people, planners and politicians. The Ardmara issue and other, similar cases, not only in North Down but throughout Northern Ireland, are coming to the fore.
I was at the protest just after the new year. I stood outside Ardmara to praise the architectural beauty of the building and to protest against its demolition. About 100 men, women and children were there. A couple of weeks ago, I was at another protest, at night, in a field in Ballymacormick, and apparently, there were about 500 people present. At that event a reporter came up to me and said "What is going on here? This place is known as "Apathyville". How come hundreds and hundreds of people are going into the fields and on to the streets to complain about these issues?".
People do that not just because they care about green belts or historic buildings but because they realise that in this new climate of democracy in government it is possible that their voices will be heard. They are going out there and starting to shout, and that is excellent.
It is plain that the legislation in this area is far, far too weak. It has too many loopholes and it is not working. We need fresh ideas and new legislation, and we need to respect the rights of the people who are living in the vicinity of these development areas. We need legislation that will take proper account of the needs and desires of local communities in the planning and development process. We need laws that will put the care, safety, health and happiness of the very young and the very old first.
We need housing estates with playgrounds. I will not say what should happen to those who in the past thought of building 21,000 houses and not one swing. Why are there housing estates with no playgrounds? Why are there roads with no cycle paths? Why are there no traffic-calming measures on roads in the vicinity of schools? Why are there shopping precincts and offices with plenty of car parks but no crèche facilities? Who is making these plans? Who is thinking about all of this? We need change.
We need legislation to protect our heritage and the natural space in which we live, and there is no time like the present. We are about to have a new Government and new powers, and we are about to enter a new millennium.
I call for a millennium preservation order. Such an order would prohibit the demolition of any building or tree over 100 years old, and it would oblige planners and developers to take account, as Mr Weir has rightly suggested, of the views of the communities living in the locality of a development site. Under such legislation, development plans would not be acceptable unless they included a community-impact assessment. It is wonderful that, while we in the constituency may not agree on certain things, we are all agreed on that.
Europe insists on environmental-impact assessments. Before a project goes ahead we must determine how it will affect the birds, the bees, the trees, and the grass. There is nothing that obliges us to consult with people living in the area, or to note their views.
Mr S Wilson:
Does the Member agree that neighbour notification is at least the start of some kind of consultation, and that that was a result of the efforts of the 1982-85 Assembly?
I am sure that Mr Wilson will agree with me that is not enough. The majority of letters in our in-trays are from individuals complaining about planning applications and about their voices not being heard. It is obvious that whatever was started then must be finished, and finished properly.
This issue is important because it will give local people a sense of ownership of the project, and we are talking about inclusion. The Women's Coalition stands for inclusion, and this is inclusion at grassroots level.
A millennium preservation order would list all buildings erected before 1990 in a new category between a conservation order and townscape character criteria. It would allow for the sympathetic development of a building which responded to the needs of an ever-expanding population in the twenty-first century but also respected our heritage. It would introduce steep fines for those who broke the law and destroyed a building or tree which was more than 100 years old except, of course, under exceptional circumstances and after agreement with experts and the local community. Those fines could be used to fund organisations such as the Conservation Volunteers or the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society to enable them to continue their valuable work. Such an order would also strengthen current legislation and introduce measures such as spot-listing. Why do we not have spot-listing, which occurs in England. Why could we not have spot-listed Ardmara?
We must have townscape character and conservation areas to ensure that laws are enforced correctly, and we must have a safety net, a third-party appeals system which would allow people to have their voices heard.
That would promote greater awareness among the population of the value and importance of preserving our built and our natural environments.
Sir John Gorman:
As people know, I have served with the Housing Executive from 1979 and was confronted by many planning problems. One of them was a lack of power and that situation exists now to an even greater degree. An example was the destruction of Ogle Street in Armagh, even though the relic of St Malachy showed it as an historic place. It was ruined one weekend by the "terrorist activity" of a developer who simply brought in bulldozers and knocked the whole street down. Mr Wolsey did exactly the same on Saturday in Bangor. I strongly recommend that the Assembly considers this matter at the earliest opportunity.
Those who read 'The Sunday Times', a paper that sometimes contains disobliging news will have seen what has happened in Dublin, and where Mr Redmond - a good name - has got to now with corruption. We may have to look at that.