Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 18 September 2001
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I have received notice from the Minister for Regional Development that he wishes to make a statement on the cryptosporidium contamination of the Dunore Point water supply, which occured in the spring of this year.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make this statement. First, I would like to express my sympathy to those who were affected by the cryptosporidiosis outbreak. I know how distressing that was for them and for their families. I regard the protection of the public water supply as my highest priority. The public should be confident that the water is safe to drink.
Information about cryptosporidium and its effects is in the public domain, and I have made Members aware of that in previous statements to the Assembly. However, for Members’ information, I shall recap on the nature of cryptosporidium and the measures being taken by the Water Service to minimise the risk of it’s entering the water supply. I shall also outline the history of the cryptosporidiosis outbreak in the spring that led to the identification of the Dunore Point water supply as its probable source. An investigation into the contamination of the Dunore Point water supply was carried out by a team led by Prof Adrian Long of Queen’s University. I shall provide details of that investigation to the House and set out the steps that Water Service is taking to implement Prof Long’s recommendations.
Cryptosporidiosis is a diarrhoeal illness caused by a microscopic parasite called cryptosporidium.
In a healthy person the illness usually clears up by itself, but this may take a week or more. People who have problems with their immune system, including those with HIV infection or AIDS, those receiving chemotherapy treatment for cancer, and transplant patients, are more at risk of serious or prolonged illness.
Cryptosporidium is present in the environment at low levels at all times. There are several sources of infection, such as contact with infected animals, contaminated food, foreign travel and person-to-person spread. It can also be spread through the public water supply.
Following outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis in Great Britain, the Government appointed an expert group to advise on measures to protect the public against cryptosporidium in drinking water. The group was initially chaired by Sir John Badenoch and then by Prof Ian Bouchier. It reported in 1990, 1995 and 1998 and made many recommendations on measures to mitigate the risk of cryptosporidium entering water supplies. These recommendations were all adopted by the Water Service and are being implemented.
Measures already taken include: carrying out cryptosporidium risk assessments at all 59 water supply sources; rigorous cryptosporidium sampling and testing programmes; and the development of effective protocol arrangements with the medical authorities and the drinking water inspector. High priority is being given to the provision and upgrading of water treatment works to ensure effective barriers to cryptosporidium, involving expenditure of £140 million over the next five years. The replacement of the Mourne and Lagmore conduits to prevent ingress has involved expenditure of £40 million.
On 13 April 2001 Dr Morgan, consultant in communicable disease control with the Eastern Health and Social Services Board, informed the Water Service of an increase in clinically diagnosed cryptosporidiosis in the community of the central Belfast area.
The Water Service immediately initiated a wide series of precautionary measures. These included: instigating category 1 major incident procedures with incident management teams being set up at divisional level and at head office; taking the Woodburn conduit out of service and carrying out a CCTV survey of it for signs of possible ingress of untreated water; the redistribution of water from various sources to compensate for the removal of the conduit; the introduction of 24-hour continuous sampling; the intensification of leakage repairs in the area to conserve water supplies; establishing formal lines of communication with the Eastern Health and Social Services Board; and providing additional customer call handling arrangements.
Dr Morgan convened a meeting of the outbreak control team on Monday 16 April. The team comprised officials from the Water Service, the Eastern Health and Social Services Board and Belfast City Council. Water samples indicated that the level of cryptosporidium present in the water was low and well within national standards. Having reviewed the available information, Dr Morgan considered the water safe to use and to drink. The outbreak control team met on six occasions between 19 April and 8 May, reviewing the situation constantly.
By 19 April geographic mapping of cases by the Water Service had identified Dunore Point water supply area as a possible common link. Over the weekend of 21 to 22 April investigations concentrated on the Dunore Point treatment works. These revealed that a defect to the site drainage system may have allowed the ingress of a small quantity of contaminated water along a cable duct to the outlet of slow sand filters. The cable duct was immediately sealed and repairs to the site drainage system were undertaken, which ensured that no further ingress of contaminated water could occur. A significant concentration of cryptosporidium oocysts was also detected in the septic tank located at the treatment works.
The outbreak control team considered that the defective sewer had been the most likely source of the outbreak. On 23 May Dr Morgan issued a press statement confirming that cases of cryptosporidiosis had returned to the usual seasonal level and declaring the outbreak to be over.
Three hundred and six cases of cryptosporidiosis were notified during the outbreak in the Eastern and Northern Health Board areas. The normal investigation into the cryptosporidiosis outbreak by the outbreak control team is underway, and its report is due later this year. The Water Service is assisting fully with this investigation.
On 27 April, I commissioned an independent investigation into the cause of the contamination of the water supply at Dunore Point. The investigation was led by Prof Adrian Long of Queen’s University, Belfast. Prof Long was assisted by Randal Scott, the Northern Ireland drinking water inspector, Harry Thompson, the technical director of the Water Service, and Dr Pauline Mackinnon, lecturer in environmental engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast. Prof Long’s report was recently presented to me, and it is clear that the team’s investigation has been detailed and comprehensive. I thank Prof Long and his team for the thoroughness and promptness of the investigation.
The team considered a number of possible sources of contamination and concluded that the most likely source was dilute sewage, which was transmitted via the cable ducts to the outlet channels of the slow sand filters. However, the report indicated that for this to have happened, a combination of a number of factors was required. These factors include the contamination of the sewer with cryptosporidium; leakage from the sewer; leakage from a water main in the vicinity of the leaking sewer, which acted as a carrier for the sewage; blockage of the drainage outlet from the cable ducts; and openings between cable ducts and filter outlets left unsealed.
Prof Long’s report stresses that if any one of the factors had not occurred, it is unlikely that contamination would have resulted. Nevertheless, I accept that, apart from the contamination of the sewer with cryptosporidium, each of the factors could have been prevented.
The report concludes that the Water Service staff acted promptly and professionally when the results of the cryptosporidium tests showed higher than anticipated values in the water supply. I endorse this conclusion, and I thank all the Water Service staff involved for their hard work, professionalism and dedication.
The report makes a number of recommendations to reduce the risk of further cryptosporidium contamination of the treated water at Dunore Point and other comparable works. These include changes to the infrastructure; procedures for the operation, maintenance and monitoring of treatment works; procedures for personnel at treatment works; design issues; the replacement of pipes and conduits vulnerable to ingress; and the implementation of similar reviews for other treatment works.
A copy of the report has been placed in the Assembly Library and is available to Members. An executive summary has been distributed to members of the Committee for Regional Development.
In conclusion, the Water Service prepared an action plan to implement the recommendations at Dunore Point and other similar treatment works. I stress to Members the seriousness with which I regard this incident and assure them that the implementation of Prof Long’s recommendations is underway - this is being treated as a top priority by the Water Service. Substantial progress has already been made in implementing the recommendations at Dunore Point, and target dates have been set for implementation at other installations.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr A Maginness):
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive report on the cryptosporidium contamination of the water supply at Dunore Point. I express the sympathy of the Committee for Regional Development to those who were adversely affected by the outbreak.
The Minister outlined five failings in the system related to Dunmore Point. A combination of factors could have contributed to the contamination. Although I understand the substance of Prof Long’s report and accept that a combination of factors was involved, it is a poor reflection on the Water Service that these factors existed and contributed to the outbreak of cryptosporidiosis.
The Water Service is to be congratulated for dealing with the outbreak promptly.
I urge the Chairperson to ask his question.
Mr A Maginness:
I understand the recommendations that have been made and their implementation, but can the Minister assure us that there will not be another outbreak at that location? It is worrying that the situation arose, and the public demands an assurance that it will not occur again.
I thank the Committee Chairperson for his question and his comments about the professionalism of the Water Service. He asks for an assurance, but the nature of this problem is such that it is virtually impossible to give a categorical assurance that there will be no further outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis, given that low levels of cryptosporidium exist all the time.
I have no hesitation in giving an assurance that every possible step is being taken to ensure that the possibility of future outbreaks is minimised. All the recommendations from Prof Long’s report have been, or are being, implemented. I hope and expect that that will minimise any future outbreak in so far as it is possible to do so. The wholesomeness of the public water supply is a top priority, and the public should be able to have confidence in its drinking water supply.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr McFarland):
I thank the Minister for his statement. However, I am concerned, because I recall that after the two outbreaks in 2000 on the Mourne and Lagmore conduits we were assured that the Water Service had checked everything. Similarly, it was stated that in so far as it was possible to determine, given the ambient level of cryptosporidium, everything had been solved. I am concerned that several problems were not solved at that time. I am aware of the overall cost of replacing entire systems, but the report has made certain recommendations; what will it cost to implement them?
I repeat that attempts are being made to ensure that outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis are kept to a minimum. It is difficult, because cryptosporidium is in the water supply at low levels throughout the year, and at certain times it occurs at higher levels.
I assure the Deputy Chairperson that the Water Service is doing all that it can to ensure that continuous efforts are made and measures put in place so that the public can have confidence in the water supply.
A range of recommendations is being implemented. Some are short-term measures and do not have significant resource implications, but others have substantial resource implications. I refer the Member to the replacement of the Mourne and Lagmore conduits. Those alone cost £40 million. The upgrading of water treatment works will make for a more effective barrier to cryptosporidium, but, as I said in my statement, that will cost £140 million over the next five years. It will be a costly exercise, but those measures must be put in place. I will apply for every possible resource to ensure public confidence in the water supply.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive statement, but I am sure that he will forgive me if I say that it is a case of déjà vu. This is beginning to become something of an annual event; exactly a year ago the Minister gave a similar report, following the outbreak in my constituency and bordering areas.
Does the Minister agree that the entire infrastructure and supply of water, and also the sewerage infrastructure, is crumbling into disrepair, and that that is the major cause of these outbreaks? Today’s report deals with Dunore Point, but there have also been outbreaks in Silent Valley, the Poleglass reservoir, the Northern Service reservoir and Lagmore conduit. Where will it end? Whose water will be next?
Does the Minister agree that cryptosporidiosis should now become a notifiable disease, because of the difficulties and potential difficulties for the elderly and those suffering from the illnesses that he already mentioned? Does he agree that the Department is failing in its duty to the general public to provide a wholesome water supply?
I will answer the final question first. I do not accept that the Department is failing in its duty. If the Member peruses the statement, he will see the lengths to which the Department is going to ensure continued public confidence in the water supply.
The substance of the Member’s questions brings us to the nub of the problem. For about 30 years, we have had a continuous cycle of underinvestment in water treatment works and in the provision of a public water supply. The events of the past two or three years are indicative of that underinvestment. I do not want to mislead the Member or the House by saying that all cryptosporidium outbreaks occurred because of underinvestment, but there is no doubt that a substantial majority of them did.
For that very reason, I have made continuous bids to increase the amount of money available for the Water Service to put effective barriers to cryptosporidium in place, as well as the other benefits that water treatments bring. I welcome Mr Close’s support for that, and I hope that if the House votes for moneys in the near future, the Water Service will receive additional funding.
Mr Close asked a question about notifiable disease status. That is not an area of responsibility for the Minister for Regional Development. However, the Member may wish to put the question to the Minister who has responsibility for disease notification.
I too welcome the Minister’s statement. The open and honest approach goes some way to reassure the public about the causes of this outbreak, and I thank him for that. Is it not then incumbent on the Minister to apply the same standards of openness to the other outbreaks? I refer in particular to the outbreak resulting from the Silent Valley issue. It was made quite clear in the Eastern Health and Social Services Board’s report that a deficiency in the infrastructure in the Saintfield area led to that ingress. Does the Minister agree that it is totally unjust that the ban on grazing for the Mourne farmers is allowed to continue? Those poor farmers were subject to a savage and punitive situation during the foot-and-mouth disease crisis. Is it not unjust that they should suffer doubly because of miscalculation and inefficient infrastructure? It is not their fault.
The Member raised the Silent Valley issue previously mentioned by others. He knows that I have responded to oral and written questions on this and have met a delegation of farmers. I sympathize with their plight. However, given the circumstances and the advice to me from the Water Service and the medical authorities, I had no alternative but to take the actions that I took. I hope for and expect Mr ONeill’s support to obtain sufficient resources to enable the speedy replacement of the Mourne conduit. That would assist the farmers, whose position we both support, to return to their grazing lands.
Mr J Wilson:
Like others, I thank the Minister for the openness and honesty of his statement and for his warning that these matters should be taken very seriously. However, is he really surprised that people in Northern Ireland, having consumed some of our water, become ill from time to time?
In my constituency, the Six Mile Water pours human waste, toiletries, bathroom and personal hygiene items into Lough Neagh every day. I can give Members a more graphic description should it be required. I can only assume that if that is happening on the Six Mile Water, it also happens on the Moyola, the Upper Bann and the Ballinderry rivers.
Is the Minister aware that an officer of the Ulster Angling Federation was recently taken to Dunore Point on the lough shore? He tossed a pebble into the water and it did not sink. What he saw there was pure gunge.
To bring the Minister up to date, is he aware that reports are reaching the angling fraternity and the local press that Lough Neagh is now throwing up dead dollaghan trout on the water surface? Is he really surprised that people are becoming ill after drinking water?
There is no doubt that from time to time in several rivers in Northern Ireland there are items that make the provision of a clean water supply more difficult. I will investigate the status of the Six Mile Water and other rivers and write to the Member when I receive a report on it. The Member also referred to Dunore Point on Lough Neagh.
I will have those checked, and I will write to the Member when I receive the information.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster): I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Local Government (Best Value) Bill (NIA19/00) be agreed.
The Bill will remove the statutory requirement for the compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) of selected services and in the interests of council residents and district ratepayers establish in its place a new framework of best value.
Few Members will mourn the passing of CCT. When I was a district councillor, I had no great love for CCT, which seemed at times to place too much emphasis on costs rather than on quality of services. CCT did, however, bring to local government a useful focus on value for money in the delivery of key services. It was therefore a policy that had the interests of residents and ratepayers at heart. Under best value, I am keen to promote greater transparency and accountability in the use of council resources and in the provision of local services to council residents and ratepayers. The Bill is an essential step towards achieving those objectives - it is a Bill for local people.
"Best value" is, of course, an expression that is not yet familiar to most residents and ratepayers in Northern Ireland’s 26 council areas. However, the Bill is highly relevant to the local issues that impinge on the everyday lives of the people whom Assembly Members and district councillors represent. It seeks to promote quality services for council residents at a price that local district ratepayers are prepared to pay. It does not simply pursue the lowest cost option. Unlike CCT, the Local Government (Best Value) Bill will require district councils to review all of their services in consultation with local people and to seek areas for improvement in the quality of service and in value for money.
Best value is not a new concept for local government in Northern Ireland. In 1998, all 26 district councils agreed to implement best value voluntarily in advance of primary legislation. A joint departmental local government steering group was set up to oversee the implementation, and key tasks were assigned to a number of joint working groups chaired by district council chief executives. My Department also introduced subordinate legislation to defer the further implementation of CCT while the best value initiative was being progressed.
Some might ask why we need the Bill. There are two main reasons. First, the requirement for CCT has merely been deferred by subordinate legislation; it remains on the statute book. Legal advice is that it cannot be further deferred in that way. That means that the CCT obligation becomes effective again on 1 April 2002, unless it is repealed before that date. Secondly, experience to date of the voluntary implementation of best value indicates that a statutory framework for best value is essential if we are to deliver the transparency, accountability and consistency that council residents and ratepayers deserve.
While councils have, as expected, taken the opportunity to stand down CCT, they have not yet fully implemented some key aspects of best value and have called for further detailed guidance to ensure that there is an effective and consistent approach. That strongly suggests that a statutory framework is the best way of promoting the interests of local people with regard to quality and value for money in council services.
I say that without rancour towards councils, which I regard as having filled the democratic gap in Northern Ireland during 30 years of direct rule. Members may argue that the best value framework might be too prescriptive and bureaucratic. They may also contend that councils should be given the scope and flexibility to seek continuous improvement on their own terms. Such views have merit. Those points were raised with me when I discussed an earlier, much more detailed and prescriptive draft Bill with the Environment Committee.
I reflected carefully on those points, and I have substantially altered the draft Bill. However, I have done that without prejudice to the sensitive principle that council residents and ratepayers are entitled to transparency, accountability and consistency in the delivery of council services. People are entitled to be given a say in the determination of council priorities for the area in which they live. People are entitled to know how their council is performing and to have the opportunity to contribute to its plans.
Ratepayers are also entitled to an assurance that their money is being well spent and that every effort is being made to provide quality services. Such an assurance can be provided only after a robust, independent scrutiny of council activity. The Local Government (Best Value) Bill makes provision for delivery on all of those counts. At the same time, I have gone to some length to ensure that the proposed statutory framework is not over- prescriptive. Moreover, I assured the Environment Committee that I would avoid over-prescription in the implementation of the framework. I repeat that assurance to the House today, because it is an important one.
Current best value procedures allow for different approaches to suit local circumstances. For example, at present councils can determine the means by which they engage local people in consultation, and, through local targets and performance indicators, they can demonstrate to the residents and ratepayers how they are performing year on year. The implementation guidance in the Bill will allow for appropriate local variation. Inevitably, any new framework will involve time, effort and resources - best value is no exception.
I am committed to taking all genuine opportunities to streamline the process. However, the proposed framework should instil some consistency of approach, enabling councils to learn from one another, while improving transparency and accountability for residents and ratepayers. That should prevent unnecessary duplication of effort, while promoting continuous improvement through meaningful benchmarking.
I do not deny that, during the consultation process, significant reservations were expressed by the local government sector. In particular, there was a genuine concern that my Department would use subordinate legislation to establish a framework that would place more emphasis on process than on outcomes. It was feared that that would stifle innovation and flexibility of approach. I have made it clear that I am opposed to such an approach.
The Bill makes provision for a robust framework that will allow for the sensitive and practical development of the best value concept. Emphasis will be placed on the use of departmental circulars for setting out the operational requirements of best value, rather than subordinate legislation, as previously proposed. That will allow us to continue and strengthen our partnership with local government to develop further guidance. I propose to establish a joint working group to develop the necessary guidance on implementation. That will make best use of the expertise of local government representatives and officials, to the benefit of the 26 district councils, their residents and ratepayers.
The Bill now comprises 11 clauses, as opposed to the 19 that were proposed at consultation stage. Clause 1 describes the best value duty and applies it to all district councils in Northern Ireland. The clause sets out a requirement that councils should systematically review all their functions and prepare plans to address any deficiencies. Councils will be required to consult widely with their communities, and that will give people more influence over council priorities for their area. Clause 2 empowers the Department to issue guidance to councils on how the duty of best value is to be discharged. Councils have requested such guidance, on the understanding that they will have input into its development. As I have said, I am committed to such engagement.
Clauses 3 and 4 deal with the arrangements for the audit of best value. That will give local people, the Department and the Assembly the assurance that council activities are subject to independent scrutiny. The Bill will allow the local government auditor to undertake an audit of every council’s performance improvement plans and to report on whether they are consistent with the legislation and any guidance issued by the Department. Other provisions will enable the auditor to examine all aspects of a council’s approach to best value in more detail. On completion of an audit, the auditor will produce a report of his or her findings. Any such report will highlight areas of concern and make recommendations for either the council or the Department to act on.
Clause 5 outlines councils’ responsibilities following receipt of an auditor’s report. If the report contains recommendations, a council will be required to prepare a statement outlining its views on those recommendations and saying, in appropriate circumstances, how and when it proposes to address the issues raised. Such statements will be forwarded to the Department and will be included in the council’s next performance improvement plan.
Significantly, councils will be required to publish an auditor’s report, thereby improving transparency for local people. Such reports will be valuable sources of information for local residents and ratepayers as well as for councillors, council staff and the Department. The provision for independent scrutiny and accountability checks will enable the Department, councils and the local government auditor to work together on promoting the delivery of quality local services.
Clause 6 deals with non-commercial considerations. Article 19 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1992 specifies matters that councils should not take into account when awarding council contracts. However, in certain circumstances, it is possible that some of those matters may be deemed relevant to procurement objectives. The clause therefore gives the Department powers, subject to Assembly approval, to specify, through subordinate legislation, matters that are no longer deemed to be non-commercial. We would, of course, ensure that any such proposal to use those powers would take account of the procurement review being undertaken by the Department of Finance and Personnel.
Clause 7 makes provision for my Department to disapply a council’s statutory obligations under best value, either for individual councils or for local government as a whole. That power would be exercisable through subordinate legislation. At this stage, I do not envisage any circumstances in which that power would be used, so its inclusion is for reasons of contingency.
Clause 8 is simply an interpretation of key references in the Bill.
Clause 9 lists the changes to primary legislation necessitated by the Bill. The main change will be the repeal of Part II of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1992, which makes provision for compulsory competitive tendering.
I would like to emphasise two points. First, it is crucial that we make progress with the Local Government (Best Value) Bill if we are to avoid the reinstatement by default of compulsory competitive tendering as a statutory obligation for 2002-03. I believe that there is consensus on that, although it undoubtedly creates pressure on the Assembly and my Department, given our tight schedule.
Secondly, Members will have noted my recurring reference to the need for transparency, accountability and consistency, in the interests of council residents and ratepayers. I make no apologies for that deliberate repetition. When I was first appointed Minister of the Environment, I was still a councillor. However, when I became conscious that my appointment gave rise to potential conflicts of interest, I took steps to avoid those conflicts. The mere possibility of potential conficts of interest eventually led me to resign my seat on Fermanagh District Council.
About 60 of my fellow MLAs retain dual mandates as councillors and Assembly Members. It is perfectly in order that they do so. However, that dual mandate undoubtedly carries with it an added responsibility. The Assembly must assure the public that the framework created for local government is transparent, accountable and subject to independent scrutiny. In particular, we must reassure council residents and ratepayers that the legislative powers of the Assembly are not being used to deny them that transparency, accountability and independent scrutiny.
The challenge is to create a balanced framework that is proportionate and practicable, but is also sufficiently robust to ensure that the legitimate needs of ratepayers and residents are met. I believe that the Bill does strike the necessary balance, and I commend it to the Assembly.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Rev Dr William McCrea):
I thank the Minister for his speech this morning. It is true that many members of my Committee are also members of district councils, and they declared that at the time.
As Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, I wish to register with Members and also the Minister, a number of concerns that the Committee still has about the Bill. On 6 April, the Committee formally responded to the Department’s best value consultation document. We questioned not only the timing of the Bill but the need for it to be so detailed and prescriptive. At that time, the Department was proposing a 21-clause Bill as opposed to an 11-clause Bill, and I acknowledge that the Minister has taken some of our concerns into consideration.
We carefully considered the policy memorandum and saw the purpose of the Bill. Members of my Committee objected to few of the stated purposes including the repeal of the existing provision for compulsory competitive tendering (CCT). Few councils are sad to see the demise of CCT. The Bill will also give councils a duty to make arrangements for continuous improvements in all their functions - who would not want that? The question is whether it should be done in a compulsory way, through the Bill, or voluntarily, as is already happening.
The Committee’s recommended a two-clause Bill, which would repeal CCT and simply put a best value general duty on councils to seek continuous improvements. I respect the fact that the Minister has made changes to the initial draft brought to my Committee. It seems that this Bill is less prescriptive, particularly on the audit of best value plans and reviews, and places more emphasis on the use of departmental circulars and consultation than on subordinate legislation. It drops clauses on best value inspections, costs recovery via prosecutions and performance improvement plans. It puts a duty on councils to seek best value and to make arrangements for continuous improvement. That is better rather than the original statement about securing continuous improvement.
The Committee wrote to the 26 district councils in January and March. We heard directly from representatives of three councils, the local government auditor, the Association for Public Service Excellence and, of course, our Minister of the Environment and his senior officials. Several of the councils questioned the need for legislation, saying that they had been voluntarily operating best value for two years. It was acknowledged by many inside and outside the Department that that had been successful.
The councils also questioned the timing of the introduction of best value legislation, given the pending review of public administration in Northern Ireland. To date, Members have heard much talk about this review, but little has been done about it. Councils also argued that the best value framework used in Great Britain was not applicable to Northern Ireland district councils, which have more limited roles and budgets.
The Committee therefore sees merit in extending the non-statutory approach to implementing best value, as currently happens in Scotland. That would allow us time to develop and strengthen the partnership and improve communications between local government and central Government. It would also allow councils time to develop good practice and improve transparency, accountability and value for money, which are key components of councils’ procurement and service delivery.
Who would deny the importance of improved transparency? Who would not want accountability or value for money? As ratepayers, we certainly desire those, but is the Minister’s approach - to race ahead with the legislation - the appropriate one?
Improved transparency, accountability and value for money are essential, and that applies as much to the Department and its activities as to the district councils and theirs. The Executive contribute to the Bill, and they consider accountability in local government to be in need of improvement, to provide more transparency for ratepayers and those who rely on council services. However, that could also be said about the Executive. My Committee discussed the 11-clause Bill. We had serious reservations about it, but we undertook to scrutinise it rigorously, clause by clause, at Committee Stage and report in full to the Assembly.
We noted the Department’s letter of 22 August, which said that, at the meeting between local government and departmental officials, it was unanimously agreed that, unlike compulsory competitive tendering, best value offered district councils the opportunity to improve quality services. It also said that the revised draft legislation was endorsed unanimously as an acceptable basis for developing best value. Can the Minister confirm that that is correct? Did the district councils ask whether that statement referred to local government throughout Northern Ireland or just to the limited number of officials who happened to be at the meeting? How will the Bill address my concerns? Will the Minister explain why extending the non-statutory approach to implementing best value is not a viable option?
Mr A Doherty:
This is an important Bill, and we need to get it right, for it reaches the heart of what politics - local and national, should be about -quality of life.
I look from three perspectives. First, the perspective of the SDLP, which, from its beginning, has worked to build the partnerships and communities - social, economic and political - that are essential to the achievement of that quality of life. Secondly, in 24 years as a district councillor, I have promoted the importance of partnerships as the best method of giving best value. Good councillors of every persuasion, despite their differences, have been united in their commitment to giving good service and good value to their constituents, making a major contribution to keeping Northern Ireland from sinking into the abyss that still opens up before us. Thirdly, I speak as a member of the Environment Committee, which is charged with giving serious consideration to the points that will be made during the debate and to the responses of the Minister and his Department. There are still many small-print points that must be examined.
I have some general questions: why the hurry; why only local government; why not the Department itself; why not Big Brother - central Government? Why impose this on councils that may soon be abolished or, God forbid, subsumed into a few supercouncils? The reasons given by the Department in support of the revised Bill are worthy of close scrutiny.
The Bill is
"to make provision imposing on district councils requirements relating to economy, efficiency and effectiveness; and for connected purposes".
The requirements relating to economy, efficiency and effectiveness are admirable and acceptable, depending on how they will be imposed. They concentrate on the processes, which might effect a limited sort of best value. We hope that the need for councils to provide best value services that take account of the human needs of the community, council workers and other stakeholders are covered under the last three words, "for connected purposes".
In its response to the draft Bill, the SDLP made that point, with regard to the absence of an equality impact assessment and the fact that both new targeting social need and equality considerations should be taken into account in local government procurement. I am not sure that the revised Bill has taken up those points.
We can readily accept the assurance of the central management branch that best value offers district councils the opportunity to provide quality services with an emphasis on public consultation and with transparency, accountability and value for money as key components in procurement and service delivery. To help councils, the Department may
"issue guidance to councils as to the carrying out of their functions".
That is in clause 2 (1). Obviously, councils will, at times, need guidance, but what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It is surely in order to suggest that, before it issues its guidelines, the Department should consult the councils and other stakeholders fully. I take on board the Minister’s words this morning about discussions with councils.
That is just one suggestion of the many that, I am sure, will be made during the debate and the Committee Stage. District councils are already heavily and voluntarily engaged in seeking to provide best value in all their services. Before the Bill becomes law, we must be satisfied that, as an Assembly officer said, the statutory framework for best value is
"essential if we are to deliver the transparency, accountability and consistency to which council residents and ratepayers are entitled."
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I want to give a broad welcome to the concept and contents of the Bill, while expressing some concerns that can be more properly dealt with in detail in Committee, if we ever get that far. The Bill will require district councils to make arrangements for continuous improvement in all their functions. It is designed to replace compulsory competitive tendering and is a recognition that CCT was too rigid and on occasions prevented councils from acting in the best interests of their communities. In other words, it was a failed and counterproductive concept.
Services and contracts will be judged not just on cost but on the balance of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Obviously that is to be welcomed, because it allows local government services and functions to be carried out in a manner that encourages the targeting of social need and embraces human rights and equality considerations.
I welcome the changes that have been made to the Bill since its original drafting. Many of the concerns expressed by the Environment Committee and by district councils have been taken into account. I welcome and acknowledge the responsiveness of the Minister and his advisers to those concerns. The Bill is now less prescriptive, particularly on the auditing of best value plans and reviews. It places more emphasis on the use of departmental circulars and consultation, rather than on subordinate legislation. It has dropped best value inspections and cost recovery via prosecutions and the section on performance improvement plans. It now provides a duty of best value that requires councils to make arrangements for continuous improvement, rather than to secure continuous improvement.
However, I remain to be convinced that we require back-to-back repeal of CCT and the introduction of best value on a statutory basis now. The Committee Chairperson comprehensively and scrupulously outlined the general view of the Committee on that matter. I note that the Scottish Parliament has extended the non-statutory implementation of best value. Best value should encourage the continued development of partnerships with the community, voluntary and private sectors, where this adds to the overall efficiency, effectiveness, and economy of services. Best value practices should encourage the sharing of resources and information in appropriate cross-border partnerships.
It is vital that best value practice does not become too mechanistic. It is vital that it be accompanied by a culture of workplace partnership and be related to human rights and equality issues - as I said earlier. It is my firm conviction that local government reform will set the context for local authorities' powers and their limitations. It does not seem to be sensible, prudent, or even logical, to impose additional restrictions and structures in advance of this reform, given that local authorities are already implementing best value policies on a voluntary, non- statutory basis. It would be more appropriate to await the outcome of this reform before considering the legislative framework that may be required to foster local government practice in a spirit of the culture of best value.
CCT legislation needs to be rescinded. However, the introduction of a detailed legislative scheme for best value should be deferred until local government reforms are being introduced. Until then, local authorities should continue to implement best value policies on a partnership and co-operative basis, and the legislative timetabling should reflect this flexible and phased approach. Go raibh míle maith agat.
The Minister, in outlining his proposals, told the House that there were two reasons why we required the Bill. The first was to get rid of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT); the second was because we need a statutory framework for best value. The first reason is self-evident, and it is not questioned by anyone in the Chamber. CCT has been an unmitigated disaster in its implementation in Northern Ireland. The very modest financial savings by district councils have been more than matched by consultants' fees and staff time lost through pressures. However, the sweeping statement that we require a statutory framework for best value has not been spelt out in any detail. No reason has been adduced as to why a statutory framework is required.
Can the Minister tell us why the Scots can manage for two more years without a statutory basis for best value, yet for our councils there is apparently an urgent requirement for back-to-back legislation to introduce statutory best value? It should be borne in mind that district councils in Northern Ireland account for less than 5% of all public expenditure and that they are in a completely different situation from that of the unitary authorities in Scotland, which have far greater powers.
The reaction of councillors, in giving the proposals a general welcome, has also been cited. The Committee Chairperson has queried the numbers and the format involved in that. I suspect that district councillors who have not had the pleasure of being elected to the Assembly still think that the consultation process is as it has been for the last 30 years. They think that a consultation document is issued; district councils and others comment on it; the Civil Service ignores the comments; and an Order in Council goes through Westminster at midnight without any regard for what has been said.
It would be an interesting exercise to remind district councillors that it is the Assembly that legislates and not Westminster - at least for another week anyway. On issues requiring consultation, they should know that there are open minds in the Assembly that will listen to the evidence - not closed minds that will slavishly follow whatever is being done in London, Edinburgh or Cardiff.
There is no doubt that the Minister has outlined some significant points that need to be taken into account. We need much more transparency and accountability. We need to give local residents and ratepayers a say in how matters are dealt with in their districts. What the Minister proposes, however, is that the district auditor, who has functions in the field of accounts, should be able to report on other matters. An auditor, with his accounting background, may be qualified to judge matters of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. However, will the Minister explain how an auditor can judge when a swimming pool should be open, whether a district council should spend money on a children's playground, or whether additional recycling centres should be maintained? Those are political issues on which councillors are entitled to set political priorities. They are not issues to be tied up purely on the basis of an auditor's examination of best value.
It is clear by the reaction to the draft Bill that was put before the Committee that this is a frightened rethink on the part of the Department and the Executive. Speaking as a Member of the Opposition, and given today's reaction from leading figures in the DUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin, I am not surprised that the Executive are running scared. If members of their parties sit in the Chamber and query the legislative plans that the Executive put before us, they clearly have a great deal to be frightened about. It has been highlighted, for example, that the best value regime is now somewhat less prescriptive because we will no longer depend on subordinate legislation but on departmental circulars.
Will the Minister explain how the Committee for the Environment will scrutinise the Executive's proposals, which will come out in the form of a departmental circular? Will we have a full opportunity to discuss them? Will they be laid before the House as subordinate legislation would be? If not, we shall end up with a best value regime that is equally as prescriptive but not subject to democratic scrutiny in the Assembly.