Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 26 June 2000
The Assembly met at 10.30 am [Mr Speaker in the Chair].
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
After the Final Stage of the Appropriation Bill there will be a statement from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister about their recent visit to Brussels.
After questions this afternoon there will be a statement from the Minister of Finance and Personnel about EU special funding, and immediately before the Adjournment debate tomorrow there be a private notice question in the name of Mrs Mary Nelis about the Transtec company.
The final stage of the Appropriation Bill is the first item on this week’s Order Paper. The matter was well aired in debate on the Estimates, no amendments have been tabled at any stage, and no notice has been received of Members wishing to speak. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, that we take not more than 30 minutes for this item.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am concerned about the authority of your office. Last week a Member took upon himself the role of "Pope". In view of the statement by that Member, who in other places exercises powers of infallibility, will you confirm that he will not be allowed to exercise those powers in this House and that your authority will remain paramount?
Whatever authority the Speaker may have, it is much more limited than that of the Holy Father. I will simply do the best that I can to make the Assembly work, and I have no doubt that other Members will do likewise.
That the Appropriation Bill [NIA5/99] do now pass.—[The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan)]
I have received notice from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that a statement is to be made on their recent visit to Brussels.
I will allow up to the full one hour for questions on the statement.
The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):
I wish to advise the Assembly that on 21 June the First Minister and I, accompanied by the Minister of Finance and Personnel, had a series of important meetings in Brussels with members of the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council.
The aim of our visit was three-fold. First, as Members will be aware, over the last 18 months the First Minister and I have been working to obtain significant continuing financial support from Europe to help secure Northern Ireland’s transition to a new peaceful society. That is something that we must all work towards, and I thank the MEPs for their continuing role.
During our visit we met with Commissioner Barnier, who is responsible for the structural funds, to conclude our negotiations on the first stage of a process that will secure the allocation of £940 million of support over the next six years. That will be channelled through both the Transitional Objective 1 and the Peace II programmes.
We had a very useful and very heartening meeting with Commissioner Barnier. We discussed the important role that the Peace II programme can play, both in addressing the legacy of the last three decades and in seizing the opportunities of peace. In short, it can help us create a prosperous, peaceful and inclusive society. When one takes the matching funding into account, Peace II equates to £75 million each year for Northern Ireland. We agreed the importance of not just spending these resources effectively but creating a highly inclusive plan to implement and monitor these important funds.
The first stage has now been completed with the formal processing of these documents in Brussels. We can now turn to the detailed negotiation of the operational programmes. In that matter we will work closely with a wide range of local interests including local government and the social partners. Commissioner Barnier, whose first visit to a region as the Commissioner was to Northern Ireland, emphasised his personal commitment to our work. He also emphasised the European Union’s desire to share in the process of creating peace here. We discussed our aim of developing our links with Brussels. This includes the opening of an office and increasing the exposure of Northern Ireland officials to the European institutions. He particularly welcomed these plans.
Secondly, the First Minister and I had a valuable meeting with Commissioner Byrne, the Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner. We supported very strongly the real efforts made by our Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Bríd Rodgers, and the United Kingdom Minister for Agriculture, Nick Brown, who are seeking to ensure that Northern Ireland can benefit from low incidence BSE status and the potential that provides for beef exports. We thanked the Commissioner for his continuing commitment to this initiative and emphasised the importance of rapid progress. The prospects of a resolution of this problem seem to be good and we welcome the efforts of the Commission and the support of the United Kingdom Government and congratulate the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development on her efforts.
The third theme of our day was to re-establish contact with key individuals in both the Commission and the Parliament and to start building the links we need to ensure that Northern Ireland not only benefits from the European Union but contributes to it as well. We had a very substantial meeting with Romano Prodi, the President of the European Commission, to brief him on Northern Ireland and to invite him to visit here.
I am delighted to say that he eagerly accepted the invitation, and plans will be put in place in the coming months. We also emphasised the need for an early decision on the eligibility of the Viridian capital fund.
We also met with Commissioner Kinnock, Mr David O’Sullivan, the new secretary-general of the commission, Sir Stephen Wall, the UK’s permanent representative to the European Union and Denis O’Leary, the Irish permanent representative. Two of our MEPs, Mr Hume and Mr Nicholson, were involved in part of the visit, and their presence, as always, was most helpful. We had a series of meetings with Members of the European Parliament to brief them on developments.
This visit emphasised the immense goodwill towards Northern Ireland in all parts of the European institutions. The successful transition that we are seeking to achieve here is of real interest to our European partners. They see it as an important development for the European Union. They have shown new willingness to support this not just financially but also in other practical ways. This is extremely welcome. It is important, however, that we do not see ourselves simply as recipients of others’ assistance. We have had to learn a great deal over the last decades. Those lessons have been hard learnt, but we have now a unique experience of seeking to live together in peace. Leading a region through the transition from conflict to peace is no minor task. It is the task that faces all of us. We are not the only region in the expanding European Union that faces this challenge. It is important that we share with others what we have learnt and, of course, in the process, learn more ourselves. We too will be exploring practical ways to see how this can be brought about.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Will the Minister explain to the House when this money was first announced and when it will be available? We seem to be having a series of announcements about money, many of which repeat what is already in the public domain. What extra money would we have received if we had met the same conditions for Objective 1 as were met by the Irish Republic? What extra percentage of funds would this part of the United Kingdom have obtained?
What is the result of the agriculture talks on the BSE problem? The Minister responsible is today in the Irish Republic and absent from the House. Surely her first duty is to tell this House what is happening among the hard-hit farmers of Northern Ireland. How long ago was the money known to be available? Sir Reg Empey made a statement about money from Europe being squandered. What actions are going to be taken by the Minister to see that this will not happen with this money?
This money is supposed to be extra. It is not supposed to be used for areas or programmes to which the Government are already committed. The vexed question of additionality arises again. Is the Minister prepared to tell us that this money will be used for additional and supplementary programmes?
These are questions that need to be answered by the Deputy First Minister.
The Deputy First Minister:
I thank the hon Member again, as I do all other MEPs, for the help and support that he has given to us on this. I am sorry that Mr Paisley was not present last week, though no doubt there were good reasons for his absence.
The Assembly will know that it is clear to everyone who was involved in and understood the institutions in the run up to the Berlin summit of 1999 that no region with a GDP of more than 75% on average could maintain Objective 1 status.
No exceptions to that were possible, and none was made. The outcome secured for Northern Ireland is much better than that obtained by any other former Objective 1 region. The continuation of the peace programme with full additionality means that Northern Ireland benefits as much from funding as any other comparable Objective 1 region. We should recognise that the battle for the Peace II programme in terms of traditional Objective 1 status was crucial for it has created a situation in which funding for the North of Ireland is equal to that of any other Objective 1 region.
The First Minister and I secured this outcome after an intensive six-month lobbying campaign with the help of all the MEPs to obtain the support of the United Kingdom and Irish Governments, the European Commission and the German presidency. Fortunately, it was successful.
The Member raised the question of funds being squandered. I should like to point out that the most stringent monitoring will be carried out. There is disquiet, and we must ensure that we deal with it. We shall do this in the most effective and ruthless way possible so that there can be no misappropriation or squandering of the funds for which we are responsible. I also give an assurance that the Peace II programme is additional. That was one of the conditions of its being granted by the European Commission, and we shall adhere to that.
As the Member knows, a range of BSE-related issues regarding trade must be sorted out to deal with a complex system. In Brussels we stressed the importance of rapid progress in this area. Both Commissioner Byrne and Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, are committed to having this matter resolved, and I believe that that will happen. It is impossible to put a timescale on it at this stage, but it is on the way to being resolved, and that must be good for us all.
I welcome this opportunity to congratulate the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Minister of Finance and Personnel on completing the negotiations on European support mechanisms, including the structural funds and the special support programme for peace and reconciliation. I also commend the three MEPs on their ongoing work in Europe and their working relationship, which, along with the working relationship between the parties in the Assembly, are a proof of our future strength in Europe.
How can we ensure that partnership boards are fully involved in the implementation of the structural funds?
The Deputy First Minister:
The European Commission has been extremely positive about partnership in the peace package. Commissioner Barnier stressed the value of such partnership during both his visit to us and our visit to him. I also recall his predecessor, Monika Wulf-Mathies, placing a great deal of emphasis on partnership in her earlier negotiations. The question of how we develop it will arise in the next stage. The involvement of local government, the voluntary sector and other parts of the local partnership — a key part of the Peace I programme — is to be considered and developed. I understand that proposals on this are being discussed and will come before the Executive Committee.
Undoubtedly this form of partnership has been a crucial aspect of the Peace I programme, and in the light of experience we will wish to see how we can develop this to the maximum benefit. I would like to dispel any unease that, in effect, the partnership element in the administration of the Peace II programme will continue; we will try to ensure that it continues in the most valuable way possible. Also, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those involved in the positive elements of those partnerships for the work they did and the efforts they made.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I want to say on behalf of Sinn Féin that we welcome the statement. We applaud the very good work of all those who contributed to securing this additional funding, both the transitional funding and the additional tranche for Peace II. A relationship with European partners is a necessary and important element in the peace process in Ireland. Of unique importance, over and above the continued EU financial support for the transitional funding from Objective 1 status, has been the continued funding for peace and reconciliation purposes — Peace II. A number of concerns in relation to Peace II have emerged, and the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister — and, indeed, Minister Mark Durkan — will be aware that these issues have been raised. The previous balance between economic development and social inclusion, which was achieved with such remarkable results under the peace and reconciliation funding, is now under threat, and that balance may be lost.
A second concern is that there might be a hiatus in funding, and I would like to ask the Deputy First Minister if this is to be addressed. Now that the funding has been secured, would it be possible to arrange for bridging funding to ensure that many of these organisations do not collapse as a result of a break in funding or a lack of continuity?
A third issue of concern is to do with the district partnerships, which represent civic society’s involvement in this process. A proposition is being seriously considered that district councils take over those functions and replace the district partnerships. That would be a step back from the principle of inclusivity.
I note with some assurance the mention in the statement that we are talking about a more inclusive process, and I hope that that particular aspect will be addressed and resolved.
Finally, I want to mention the issue of this possibly being the last such funding tranche for peace and reconciliation purposes. This is a society emerging from conflict into a process of change. That process of change will continue to challenge all of us, and it may be necessary to attempt to secure continuous support from the EU for this process — and I hope that the Deputy First Minister will be able to give some indication of this. As a society, we are looking towards not just continuous political change but, quite possibly, within the foreseeable future, constitutional change. That would be of interest to our European partners. Thank you very much.
The Deputy First Minister:
I thank the Member for his observations. He is quite right: the European Union is a crucial part of our existence. I welcome his implication that we should be a crucial part of the European existence. We are not simply a region sitting with our own problems here; we are part of a European Union that has and will have continuing problems — problems especially concerning the expansion of the European Union. It is my belief that we have a very important role to play in being able to make the North of Ireland the template for conflict resolution in other places, the template for dealing with the transition from violence to peace. I consider that that is one of the crucial roles that we should and must play in Europe. It is not just a matter of our always looking for what we can get out of Europe; we should be asking what can we contribute to Europe. The more we do that, the more our voice will be heard there.
The Committee has developed an approach that strikes a good balance between the economic and social elements. Commissioner Barnier also appeared to feel that we were getting this right. Economic and social actions can and must be mutually supportive. We will continue to listen to the views expressed in consultation on this so that the best possible outcome is secured in the next phase of negotiations.
I also take the point that the Member made on a hiatus in funding. We have to ensure that that hiatus, if there is one, is as short and as painless as possible. I know the Member will understand that I cannot anticipate decisions that may be made on this by the Executive Committee or by other Departments.
There should be no tension between the partnership boards and district councils. When we look at the genesis of the partnership boards we realise that most of them, and the community groupings involved, did a remarkable job, in difficult circumstances, on issues which were not being addressed by Departments or by district councils. That was one of the reasons for the creation of those partnerships. We will have to get, as in the socio-economic balance, the right mix between partnerships at all levels in Northern Ireland.
The Member makes a very interesting point about securing continuing support from the EU. We will try to do that. We will try to make the North of Ireland as relevant to Europe as is possible to try to maximise that opportunity. We have to work on the basis that we are not going to see the same type of Peace I or Peace II programme. That does not mean that we cannot, given our ingenuity, create other ways in which to seek assistance, while not at this stage attempting in any way to anticipate that we might get it.
I encourage Members to remember that this is an opportunity to ask questions. Any intervention should be in the form of a question.
I welcome the statement from the Deputy First Minister about his visit to Brussels. I note the reference to the opening of an office in Brussels. What budget has he in mind for that office, and what does he anticipate being the additional benefits that would be obtained through that office in return for the money that it would cost to run it?
In his statement he used the words, in the context of that office,
"increasing the exposure of Northern Ireland officials to the European institutions."
That is a slightly unfortunate choice of words in view of the recent inquiries on the conduct of certain European officials. He might like to rephrase that if it is going to be used in future. I have no reason at all to think that any of the inquiries about European officials will be about our officials, but I would not like them to be associated with those inquiries by a form of words.
The other matter relates to the question the Deputy First Minister has just answered on the peace money. His statement says that Peace II equates to £75 million each year for Northern Ireland. Last week I asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether this should be spent in equal tranches over the period or whether it would be in some other configuration. At that stage he thought that equal tranches were what was envisaged. I question whether that is sensible. There is the distinct probability that this funding will diminish very considerably at the end of the current programme. It might be more prudent if the amount were higher at the start and then tapered. The recipients would become accustomed to getting by with a smaller allocation over time.
We do not want a repetition of the situation which we have now with a great many, often very worthy, organisations finding themselves short of funding because of the uncertainty between one programme and the next. We should be planning for the future to ensure that we do not have that problem at the end of the programme.
The Deputy First Minister:
I thank the Member for his questions.
I am advised that the cost will be in the region of £500,000 per year. Proposals, soon to be brought to the Executive Committee about the office will ensure that the money is well spent. The proposals will also aim to achieve a number of other things. We have been looking at examples from other regions and would like to start by developing an office to provide a base for Ministers and officials visiting from Northern Ireland. That is important, because as the Assembly develops, the number of visits, in both directions, will increase.
A small number of permanent staff will have a role in ensuring that we have an early warning of developments at the European level and this will ensure that the Northern Ireland interest is taken into account in all negotiations, in the Commission, the Council and the Parliament. We should look at the Welsh and Scottish experiences and at how they are maximising their presence in Brussels. They know the fast tracks, they know how to get on to the fast tracks and more importantly, and they know how to get off the fast tracks with the maximum advantages.
We also want to see how such an office could help us build links with regional authorities from other member states to ensure the best exchange of ideas and information. The other objective is to establish a role for us in the European Union that will transcend funding. Such involvement could substantially increase our stock there and ensure that when we do need assistance we will be knocking at more open doors than might otherwise be the case. We are very keen to work with other organisations from Northern Ireland that are also eager to develop links in Europe.
The second point that the Member made was about exposure. I am not sure which elements of exposure the Member was speaking of, but I will simplify it in these terms. As the relationship between the political process in the North of Ireland and Europe increases, I would like to see people from there being seconded to here, and vice versa, so that we can develop that ongoing process. We have to lose our insularity. We have to expose ourselves and our officials to fresh thinking, especially from within the European Union.
Regarding the Member’s third point about allocating £75 million per annum on a decreasing scale as opposed to in equal tranches, I am not sure that any mathematical formula will be consistent. I will leave that to the Executive Committee and to the Department of Finance and Personnel. However, thinking of partnership, there are some things you cannot quantify, such as the value of inclusion and the work done by inclusion. I do not think that we should be looking at the Peace II element in that way. While it must be effective and efficient, I am not sure that it is something that a slide rule could be effectively applied to.
I welcome the statement made by the Deputy First Minister and thank him and his Colleagues. We are well aware of the delays in the acceptance of the submission that was made from Northern Ireland, so this is very good news for Northern Ireland and the Assembly. We want joined-up Government in Northern Ireland, so can the Minister assure me that the funds will be used in a strategic way, rather than Department-led, as was often the case in the past?
A large element of the package deals with structural funds, and a major element of that, in my book, relates to infrastructure. As a member of the monitoring committee that was established during the period of suspension, I raised the issue of the crisis with the railways. May I ask the Deputy First Minister what provisions have been made to address this crisis and what funds have been made available for the possible extension of the natural gas pipeline to the north west.
Finally, I welcome the announcement that there will be an office representing Northern Ireland’s interests in Brussels. As a very strong supporter of Europe, I would like to be assured by the Minister that the role played by the Northern Ireland centre in Europe will also be recognised.
The Deputy First Minister:
With regard to the Member’s first question, the detail of the operational programmes still has to be negotiated. Like Mr Neeson, I hope that it will be done on a strategic basis with the cross-cutting element properly and adequately dealt with. With regard to the targeting of social need (TSN), it is essential that each Department fully implement those proposals and, at the same time, have a strategic overview on what must be done.
The second question about support for railways depends on the view taken by the Minister for Regional Development and other Ministers on how we approach investment in railways. The rail infrastructure for the North of Ireland is a huge issue which must be addressed by the Executive Committee. We must make progress here, but railways are not likely to be suitable for inclusion in the Peace II programme, although there may be scope in transitional Objective 1, but not as an addition, as I think the Member will accept.
I join with others in welcoming the Deputy First Minister’s statement. A number of people have been patting themselves on the back for securing this funding, but I am sure that the Deputy First Minister will agree that it is the European Union that deserves the appreciation and recognition for the strong commitment it is showing to Northern Ireland.
Can the Deputy First Minister confirm that European Union funding from Peace II, the peace and reconciliation fund, will be used for the vital purpose of peace building, and for this alone, and that any project which does not fit this criterion will not be accepted?
Secondly, can the Deputy First Minister confirm that intermediary funding bodies which have shown high levels of expertise and experience on the ground will continue to be used as funding mechanisms for this new programme?
Thirdly, I too welcome the increased links with Europe and the opening of an office as an extension of those links. I hope that it was only a slip of the pen that caused mention to be made of increasing the exposure of Northern Ireland officials to the European Institutions. Surely what we need is to increase the exposure of Northern Ireland’s people to these institutions. That includes young people, business people, trade unions and other organisations, which can become a much greater part of the European project.
The Deputy First Minister:
I thank the Member for those questions. When I speak of exposure, of course I mean it at every level. I referred to the ones for which we have administrative authority. Like the Member, I hope that every facet of life will avail of the communications that exist, and especially of the new office, which will be a great help.
The Member asked whether the Peace II programme would be used for peace-building alone. I believe that the mixture of economic and social priorities has to be right. It is very difficult. To put it simply, one of the most basic things that puts people at peace with themselves, their neighbours and their environment is the hope that they will have a job to go to and a wage packet at the end of the week. That gives them the self-respect that any family is entitled to. I do not think it is possible to draw a simple line of demarcation between that which would assist people in the North of Ireland in economic terms and that which could be defined as purely social input.
The remarkable work that has been done by many of the partnerships has been to give people the confidence not just to develop their own communities but to develop on the type of strategic basis that Mr Neeson mentioned. We must keep developing that. I cannot say at this stage which funding mechanisms will be retained or sustained, but we are committed to building on the success of the peace programme, and particularly on those partnerships. Further work is needed on how best to bring together all the positive contributions made by district councils, social partners and voluntary and community groups.
We must have an inclusive, grass-roots-based process. That is very important to us and to the Commission. The Commission has made it clear that that is regarded as being of primary importance. We will treat it as such, not only because it is the right thing to do — which it is — but because it is essential in this type of development to have those partnerships working properly, in the proper meaning of the term — partnerships with this Administration, with the district councils and with the communities.
I too thank the Deputy First Minister, as well as the three MEPs, for the work that they have done. They have worked industriously backstage to ensure that the money will arrive.
In his address the Deputy First Minister referred to the wider range of local interests, including local government and the social partners. I welcome a close liaison between local government and the partnership boards, but I have three questions.
Order. I ask the Member to speak a little slower. Some Members are having difficulty picking him up.
I will come a bit closer.
I wish to ask three questions about local government and social partners.
Does the Deputy First Minister agree that local councils have an important role to play in economic strategy and can spend up to 5p in the pound of their rates income on that sector? Secondly, does he agree that there should be more local representatives on the local partnership boards? At present they number seven out of 21. Thirdly, and most importantly, does he agree that there should be closer co-operation between councils and local partnership boards, as many councils feel that they would be the poor relation in that partnership?
The Deputy First Minister:
Obviously district councils have a crucial role to play in developing economic strategy, and they have the fund-raising mechanism to facilitate this. There have been many instances in which district councils have been the springboard for investment and for Government decisions that would not otherwise have been made. We must continue to try to get this balance right — the balance between economic strategy and the need to deal with the social aspects of partnership. The two are not mutually exclusive, and we should avoid thinking that district councils and district partnerships are exclusive. I served on a district council for 16 years. Many of the needs of the partnerships were fulfilled by the partnerships themselves because they were doing the type of work that neither the district councils nor the Departments were equipped to do. The term "partnership" needs to be regarded more globally. We need to consider partnership between this Administration, district councils, partnership boards and other elements of social partnership. There will, no doubt, be further discussion about the numbers of councillors on partnership boards, and here again we need to get the balance right. The more successful the current operation is, the more we will extend beyond just administering funds to creating broad partnerships throughout the community. We ourselves are a product of this process. We should not forget that, when we set about trying to resolve our political problems, we took as a template the partnerships that already existed. From these we created the partnership here, known as the Northern Ireland Executive Committee of the Assembly.
I congratulate the Ministers and welcome the Deputy First Minister’s assurance that he will stamp out any misappropriation of European funds. Is he aware that the irregularities of EU funding will be highlighted in an ‘Insight’ programme to be broadcast this evening? What steps will he take to reassure people watching this programme that EU funding will reach the people that it is intended to help?
The Deputy First Minister:
I thank the Member for his question, which is very important.
I understand that this evening’s ‘Insight’ programme takes a critical look at excessive, or irregular, EU funding for projects under Peace I. I should like to stress that, while I am not aware of specific project details, any evidence that suggests misappropriation of European programme funds has been, and will continue to be, thoroughly investigated. These are public funds, and the highest standards of accountability must be attached to all these moneys. Accountability, value for money and the safeguarding of public funds are all of primary concern in the structural fund programmes. The programme places considerable emphasis on reaching out to grass-roots organisations, but since these are public funds, their use must be carefully scrutinised and the moneys accounted for through the proper channels. Grants-in-aid to intermediary funding bodies and second-tier bodies are subject to terms and conditions, which make them responsible for the monitoring of grants to final recipients. Government Departments remain fully accountable for all EU and matching funding handled by these organisations. All structural funds expenditure handled by Northern Ireland Departments is subject to the normal requirements for Government accounting by the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the European Court of Auditors.
Any lessons learned from Peace I, along with the experience gained by the funding bodies, will be built upon in Peace II to ensure that the programme is managed efficiently and effectively. This matter was raised with the First Minister, the Minister of Finance and Personnel and myself by Commissioner Barnier. I say to the Assembly what I said to him: "We will not put ourselves in the position where we make a case in Brussels for funding, for that funding to be in any way misused or misappropriated."
I know that there are details that must be looked at. They are being looked at, and they will be looked at. I would dispel the notion that it is just some of the community groupings that are involved. It is much more fundamental than that and, therefore, much more worrying. At this stage I assure everyone that what can be done will be done in relation to what might have happened, and we will ensure there will be no repeat of that in any shape or form.
I welcome the Deputy First Minister’s statement. I want to tease out the last sentence on the first page of the statement:
"We agreed the importance not just of spending these resources effectively, but creating a highly inclusive plan to implement and monitor these important Funds."
Efficiency and inclusion are important. On efficiency, can the Deputy First Minister give us an assurance that sustainability will be an important element of any projects coming through under peace and reconciliation? It should be addressed under project assessment.
This follows from Mr Shannon’s question. In some projects, district councils are having to give assistance. It would be better if the sustainability element could ensure that these projects are able to proceed on their own. Regarding inclusion, there is a need to be proactive in encouraging applications from the Protestant community, whose ethos, particularly in the rural areas, has, in the past, militated against it availing of the benefits of peace and reconciliation funding. I know that there is a need to redress the balance in my constituency. I hope that this will be taken on board.
The Deputy First Minister:
I thank the Member for his question.
Sustainability is very important. It is very important in relation to the question from the Member for Foyle about the end — for there will be an end to Peace II, just as there was an end to Peace I. In seeking sustainability, we must recognise that there are elements in our lives that cannot be measured. The benefit to the entire community in the North of Ireland from some of the input from Peace I and Peace II cannot be quantified. It cannot be sustained unless we, as part of the political process, recognise its importance and ensure that we have laid the basis for its sustainability should funding of this nature come to an end. The Member’s point is a good one, and it must be kept at the forefront of our minds.
He also raised the question of district councils, and I reiterate that the ultimate elements of partnership involve that between all of us. I know from experience that remarkably good work is being done in the community by various groupings — work that district councils and Government Departments are not equipped to do. One must ask why, if district councils and Government Departments regard that work as important, they were not doing it when it was most needed. In reality there is, and will continue to be, another level in our society which needs input on a community basis.
The Member’s third point related to encouraging the Protestant community to redress the imbalance in community involvement and in the level and depth of applications. I believe that is right. The Catholic community, for whatever reasons — and there were many — was better geared towards benefiting from this type of funding. It was probably better organised on a community basis and hence better able to seek this funding. We want to make sure — I intensely dislike talking in terms of Protestant or Catholic communities — that the entire community in the North of Ireland is in a position to seek funding where it is needed and that the Administration is in a position to ensure that it gets it.
Mr B Hutchinson:
I too welcome the Deputy First Minister’s statement. Following from the answer that he gave to the hon Member for North Down, Ms Morrice, can the Minister confirm that he is giving no guarantee that intermediary funding bodies will be used to channel Peace II funds?
The Deputy First Minister:
I am not refusing to give guarantees. I am saying — this should be obvious from everything that I have said — that I want to see partnership boards. I want to see those groupings which worked well and effectively in the past continuing to do that work and receive funding for it. I also want to make a special case for groupings that were not working effectively but received funding in a way which I do not think was acceptable. We will look very closely at their involvement, but the main thing is to ensure that those groupings which are doing good and proper work receive the funding needed to enable that work to continue.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I too welcome this opportunity for extra funding, and I thank everyone involved in securing that allocation for the coming months and years. For us, the question is obviously to do with implementation. There has to be a balance in implementation between east and west. There have been several bids for money for certain areas so far. I ask that the needs of the economy in the west be given due consideration.
The recent package given to agriculture has had very little impact, particularly when one considers the negative impact that European policies have had on our agriculture industry.
I hope that some of this money will be used to try to redress the losses rural areas have sustained because of European policies which have made them non-competitive. Clearly, this money must be additional. It is important that we do not simply use it for Government schemes which should be covered by the block grant. In the last round the Government tried to get some of the peace money used in this way.
There is also the matter of the bid for control of the money between the councils and the partnerships. Part of the success of the partnerships has been the whole issue of social inclusion. The Minister mentioned that those that were there previously were not doing the work that the partnerships have done. I see that as being part of the success of partnerships. It is important that that element be considered very strongly indeed and that they have the necessary input to deal with this money in a balanced and fair way.
The Deputy First Minister:
I thank the Member for his question. I can assure him that, so far as the Executive Committee is concerned, it will be done in a balanced and in a fair way. That is the type of problem we now have to grapple with in terms of how we deal with the negotiations and make sure that those negotiations are properly handled.
With regard to the western part of Northern Ireland, I share his view that we must be aware of the needs of all sections of the community — and not just in terms of political or religious divisions. One of the biggest divisions in Northern Ireland is that between the rural and the urban areas. We have to ensure that the rural areas are properly catered for, and it is not easy to do that. Rural areas tend not to have the infrastructure in terms of community involvement that urban areas have. There the problems are not so glaring, but they are there.
I can assure the Member that things will be done fairly and in a way that the entire Northern Ireland community is allowed to benefit from them and that the problem of divisions between urban and rural areas will be addressed. Some of us on the Executive Committee are from rural Northern Ireland, and we will ensure at all times that those needs are brought to the attention of other members and dealt with.
Does the Minister agree that in some parts of Northern Ireland there has been serious tension between local government and the 26 district partnerships? In fact, both local government and district partnerships sometimes see each other as a threat. What mechanisms can he put in place between district councils and the 26 district partnerships to try to smooth out those issues?
There is another matter which seriously concerns those involved in local government in Northern Ireland. It has been the experience of our council that after money has been allocated to projects, groups come along asking for serious money to make up the shortfall in their finances and also looking for running costs for their projects. These costs can run into several thousands of pounds. I want to ask the Minister how these projects can be sustained. I believe that many of them will run into financial difficulties over the next few years. The only path that they see open to them is that of local government.
What mechanism can the Deputy First Minister put in place to ensure that both communities share finance equally? I am glad to hear him say that there has been an imbalance of the spending of European money on Northern Ireland’s communities — it is good that he recognises that — and I agree that the Protestant community comes from a lower base when applying for project funding. There is an imbalance that needs to be addressed.
The Deputy First Minister:
I thank the Member for his questions.
The question of district councils as opposed to partnership boards keeps cropping up in those terms. We must try to regard this in terms not just of district councils versus partnerships but also of how they could work and dovetail together. When the Peace I programme was agreed by Europe, we should remember, it was agreed only on the basis of the approach that Europe suggested in terms of partnership boards — in other words, a bottom-up approach. Commissioner Barnier would not have sanctioned Peace II unless there were that partnership approach and those mechanisms. That does not preclude the fact that district councils could work with partnership boards in such a way that it will not be regarded as a contest bout that they are working together maximising the benefits for their city, town or district council area.
I recognise the shortfall and the unease that exists. It is always easy to blame something else, but suspension did not help in having this matter finalised, and it is one of the contributing factors.
The last question relates to what mechanisms there are to ensure that all of the community properly maximises its advantage from these funds. I am not sure that there is a specific mechanism or mechanisms that could be devised for that, but I am sure that the everybody realises that the proper, effective and full utilisation of these funds will benefit the entire community, and I recommend that type of approach.
Mr A Doherty:
May I too compliment the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Minister of Finance and Personnel on the encouraging outcome of the work they did in Brussels this week. I am sure that Deputy Speaker Morrice will acknowledge that this was in the face of considerable competition from others interested in securing EU funding.
I note from his statement that the Deputy First Minister raised the issue of BSE low incidence status with Commissioner Byrne. He also indicated that the prospects for a resolution of the problem are good. Will he outline how this issue is to be resolved?
The Deputy First Minister:
I thank the Member for his question.
While Northern Ireland complies with the criteria for a low-incidence region as set out by the OIE — and as we all know what the OIE is, I will not attempt to pronounce it from the piece of paper in front of me.
It is the Animal Health Organisation, and it has a very important say in this matter. We have yet to have BSE low incidence status formally recognised by the European Union. The main obstacle to achieving that centres on convincing the Commission and the other 14 member states that we have the controls in place to guarantee that only Northern Ireland cattle, beef and beef products could be exported.
That is the kernel of this problem, and it is the kernel of the problem that the Commissioner, the Minister of Agriculture (Nick Brown) and our Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Bríd Rodgers) are addressing. We must address it in a way that will minimise any disruption to the existing trade in beef and beef products coming into Northern Ireland from Britain. Again that is a crucial part of the problem.
Nick Brown has already made it clear that the case would only be progressed on the basis of a full and detailed public consultation throughout the United Kingdom. To that end DARD and MAFF officials have had preliminary discussions with Commissioner Byrne’s officials to agree the shape of the consultation document. It is hoped that that consultation could start in the next few weeks. Again, I am reasonably hopeful that the matter will be addressed at its core, which is in ensuring that beef that would come from the North of Ireland would be Northern Ireland beef. I look forward to a resolution of this matter because I think it is now possible to have it resolved in our favour.
We have come to the end of time for questions. I regret that a number of Members who had questions were not able to put them in the time but we have only a maximum of one hour for questions after a ministerial statement.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Mr McGimpsey, will represent the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Ms Rodgers.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McGimpsey): I beg leave, on behalf of Ms Rodgers, to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 9/99] to amend the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966.
I apologise for the absence of Ms Rodgers, who is attending a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This Bill is not yet available to Members.
The Bill cannot be made available until it has achieved its First Stage, which constitutes agreement to publish. It is a purely formal stage, and the Bill will be ready in the usual form tomorrow morning, if we proceed with it. It will then be on the list of future business until a date for a Second Stage is determined.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
Sir Reg Empey:
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Weights and Measures (Amendment) Bill [NIA 8/99] be agreed.
This stage provides an opportunity for a general debate on the Bill and for Members to vote on its general principles. Weights and measures law has a history going back thousands of years. In England, it was mentioned in as fundamental document as the Magna Carta.
Until about 100 years ago weighing and measuring equipment was fairly basic and consisted of simple weighing scales and measures of capacity for commodities such as wine and grain. During the first half of the twentieth century, weighing machines with levers and dials and petrol pumps with meters, became commonplace. With the advent of electrical devices and more recently micro-electronics, equipment has become more tehcnical in its construction and operation and it is often connected to other equipment such as cash registers.
The history and nature of weights and measures law in Great Britain and Northern Ireland has evolved to establish suitable units of measurements and to ensure that equipment operates fairly, favouring neither buyer nor seller.
In Northern Ireland, the law governing the verification of weighing or measuring equipment is the Weights and Measures (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, and this Bill proposes three specific amendments to that Order.
Verification is the examination and testing of weighing and measuring equipment before it is allowed to be used for trade transactions. The equipment includes things like butchers' scales and petrol pumps. Currently, verification is achieved by having the weighing and measuring equipment tested, passed and stamped by inspectors of weights and measures before it can be used for trade. Inspectors of weights and measures are suitably qualified to verify that equipment conforms to the relevant regulations, and measures with sufficient accuracy, before it can be used.
The purpose of this Bill is to introduce deregulatory measures associated with such verification of weighing or measuring equipment. These deregulatory measures can be achieved without compromising confidence in a fair trading environment.
The first measure - the self-verification of weighing or measuring equipment - will permit approved manufacturers, installers and repairers to conduct their own testing, passing as fit for use for trade, and stamping of weighing and measuring equipment. Currently, such equipment can only be verified by an inspector of weights and measures. Any approved manufacturer, installer or repairer will have to meet the same testing standards as used by inspectors.
The second measure - the testing by official European economic area (EEA) testers - will allow an inspector of weights and measures to accept, as part of the process of verification of equipment, test reports from third-party testers established in the European economic area.
If the inspector is satisfied that the tests have been performed by a competent person, he will accept the test report as part of his verification of the equipment. That would result in a saving to the owner of the equipment, as he will not incur the cost of having the test repeated.
The final measure - applying the prescribed stamp prior to testing the equipment - will enable manufacturers of weighing or measuring equipment (beer glasses, for example) who are approved verifiers to incorporate into the manufacturing process the stamp to be applied to the equipment. However, the manufacturer must have safeguards in place to ensure that the equipment will be passed as fit for such trade use and that it will not be used until it has been so passed.
These three deregulatory measures were first proposed for inclusion in the composite Deregulation (Northern Ireland) Order 1997. Consultation on that draft Order took place here in December 1996 and January 1997. No adverse response to the weights and measures provisions was received from this consultation exercise. The delay in proceeding was, of course, due to the 1997 general election. The measures perished at the time of the dissolution of Parliament.
The measures replicate for Northern Ireland the provisions contained in the Deregulation (Weights and Measures) Order 1999, which was made by the Department of Trade and Industry on 1 March 1999. The proposed amendments in this Bill will provide parity with the law already in force in Great Britain.
The implementation of the measures contained in this Bill has the potential to reduce burdens on business and can be achieved without reducing the current level of consumer protection in this area.
I hope that I have given Members an appreciation of the scope of the Bill and that the Assembly is content that it should now pass to the Committee Stage for more detailed scrutiny.
I want briefly to sound some notes of caution in relation to this Bill. Obviously we will be looking at it in greater detail in Committee.
At the moment, such equipment must be verified by an inspector of weights and measures. This Bill means that shopkeepers and manufacturers can act as their own inspectors. Installers and repairers can verify equipment as fit for trade.
I am concerned that this deregulation is fraught with opportunities for abuse. I sound a note of caution at this stage, and we shall obviously look at it in further detail.
We should not go down the road of deregulation for its own sake. One must remember the deregulation of animal feeds which brought us the BSE crisis. If there is to be deregulation we must be careful that, at the very least, we put something in place for the safeguard of consumers.
Go raibh maith agat.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Weights and Measures (Amendment) Bill [NIA 8/99] be agreed.