HC Deb 07 July 1978 vol 953 cc972-85

4.46 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James A. Dunn)

I beg to move, That the draft Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which was laid before this House on 23rd June, be approved. The order, one of a series generally required at intervals of two years, deals with a number of miscellaneous financial matters. I now deal briefly with the purpose of the various articles in the order.

Article 3 and schedules 1 and 2 increase two statutory limits: First, the one for issues from the Consolidated Fund for expenditure on roads, and the second to enable the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland to make loans to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The respective limits are to be increased from £200 million to £300 million, and from £550 million to £850 million, which should cover estimated expenditure to approximately March 1980.

Article 4 removes two unnecessary restrictions relating to the Civil Contingencies Fund. First, under existing legislation any temporary increase in capital of the fund is required to be made by reason of exigencies arising out of any emergency". Temporary increases in the Fund are, in fact, required mainly to meet expenditure on urgent services pending grant of Supply by Parliament. Secondly, any borrowing by the fund is required to be repaid within six months of the end of the financial year in which the borrowing took place. The removal of the references to emergency and to the repayment period brings the Northern Ireland legislation into line with that governing the United Kingdom Contingencies Fund.

Article 5 abolishes the Housing Commutation Fund and makes provision for any remaining payments in commutation of annual housing subsidies to housing associations to be made by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland from voted moneys. Under housing legislation, annual subsidies are no longer payable to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and therefore the fund has become redundant.

Article 6 makes provision for any excess of income over expenditure remaining in the Government Loans Fund at the end of a financial year to be paid to the Consolidated Fund. The enactment of this article means that any annual surplus or deficiency will transfer automatically to or from the Consolidated Fund.

Article 7 refers to the Carlisle and Blake fund. This charitable fund vested in the Department of Education, has an annual income of around £90 which must be used to make awards to principals of primary schools. At current values such awards are not significant, and the amending provision will empower the Department to use the fund for other educational purposes more appropriate to present day circumstances.

Article 8 increases from £9½ million to £12 million the limit on the amount of loans and grants that may be made by the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture to harbour authorities for the execution of harbour works. The present limit is expected to be reached by December 1978.

Article 9 amends the legislation governing the making of allowances payments to district councillors. Existing legislation provides for the rates of allowances to be prescribed by subordinate legislation and to be subject to the approval of the Department of the Civil Service. The new provision enables the rates to be set by administrative action of the Department of the Environment and without need for approval of any other Department. This amendment arose as a result of the examiner of statutory rules questioning the validity of a rule in which rates for travelling allowances outside the British Isles had been conveniently prescribed as being at such rates as the Department may from time to time approve. The legislation governing the setting of rates of such allowances payable to councillors in Great Britain does not require the use of subordinate legislation.

Articles 10 and 11 amend the legislation governing allowance payments made to members of education and library boards in a similar manner to the amendment in article 9 relating to councillors. This amendment stems from the same problem being encountered in relation to specific rates payable for travel abroad.

Articles 12 and 13 are complementary. Article 12 abolishes the Ulster Land Fund and article 13 re-enacts as closely as possible the provisions necessary to enable the Department of the Environment to make from voted moneys those payments at present being met from the Ulster Land Fund. The fund's original object was to enable the Northern Ireland Exchequer to recoup the value of property offered in lieu of estate duty—a matter that is no longer the subject of Northern Ireland legislation. Subsequent extension of the fund's purpose enabled grants to be made to the National Trust and it is these payments that will in future be made by the Department of the Environment from a Vote.

Right hon. and hon. Members will appreciate that this order covers a wide range of topics. If, as a result, points are raised to which I am not able to give an immediate answer, I shall reply by letter.

4.53 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

As the Minister has said, this order is by its nature an omniumgatherum although the helpful explanatory document issued with it has enabled those whose fancy took them to follow the introductory speech of the Minister even better than would otherwise have been the case. It would be wrong not to take this order seriously, because there are a number of important provisions in it. Because it covers diverse matters the only way in which to deal with it is by grouping them and taking each group separately. That I will endeavour to do briefly.

Articles 3 and 8 are of the same character in that they increase the statutory limits. I do not believe that exception could be taken to either of those items. The period of future time likely to be covered by the increased facility is a reasonable period—one or two financial years ahead. Thus the House is enabled to keep a certain control over capital expenditure.

I must point to two anomalies, one less and one perhaps more serious. It is a rather curious duo which appear in schedule 1. The number of limits on capital expenditure which are in force at the moment are much more numerous than those set out in schedule 1. One realises that it is very much an irregular operation from time to time to increase one or two of these limits by one of these orders.

But there is another and more difficult aspect. The House will notice that the first of the two statutory provisions relates to the Special Roads Act (Northern Ireland) 1963, the purpose of which is capital expenditure on roads. But, of course, most capital expenditure on roads is not dealt with in this way. Most capital expenditure on roads comes under the estimates and appropriation which we have dealt with in the order which the House has just cleared. We have, therefore, the anomaly that capital expenditure upon roads is partly dealt with by estimate and partly by loans out of the Consolidated Fund.

That leads me to make just one observation as to the control which this House exercises over capital expenditure by way of loan as compared with other forms of capital expenditure. We cannot, indeed, control that former expenditure—expenditure covered by loans—in the way in which we can control expenditure which falls within the estimates. We do, of course, have the appropriation accounts in each case, and those are commented on by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, and in due course through the machinery for considering the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor-General. In that sense, the House retains some degree of control over expenditure which is met by loans.

But the only other scope for control, if the word may be used at all, is in these periodic fixings of the limits for loans. Of course, it would be quite inappropriate to be discussing capital expenditure on roads anent schedule 1 of this order. That would be a very catch-as-catch-can way of surveying expenditure.

From that observation I am led to conclude that only when this House has provided itself with a system of committees, which can consider subject by subject the total expenditure of Government, whether financed out of estimates or financed by way of loans, shall we have a really uniform and logical form of control.

That is no criticism of what is in the order, but what is in the order ought to remind the House that the quite elaborate system of parliamentary control, which dates back a century or more, is really now obsolete and we need to have it replaced by a comprehensive system whereby we can review the present forms of financing public expenditure.

I come next to three articles which can fitly be grouped together. One might say that they are three articles which rationalise the system in Northern Ireland, and to that extent assimilate it to the system in the rest of the Kingdom. Those articles are nos. 4, 5 and 6. Of course, it would be absurd if the rules governing the Contingencies Fund for Northern Ireland differed from those for the Contingencies Fund for Great Britain. It is quite right that article 4 should bring them into unison. Similarly, we have now brought housing finance, and the channelling of housing finance, as a result of a series of housing orders, into a rational form. I imagine that article 5 is the last step in this process.

Article 6 is a very proper tidying-up process. The principle of a Consolidated Fund, which I believe I am right in saying was introduced by the Younger Pitt, is a principle without which there can be no rational management of public finance. The idea that one can have separate funds, accumulating their own surpluses and attempting to manage little bits and pieces of public money here and there, is quite inimical to the proper survey of public finance and, indeed, is inimical to the most economical financing of public expenditure. Therefore, I welcome articles 4, 5 and 6 in that they rationalise the accounting and management of these aspects of public finance in Northern Ireland.

With article 7 we come to perhaps the sole criticism that I have of the order. It is the smallest matter in the order, but that does not justify the House in closing its eyes to the contents of the article. In other circumstances, if this were not a charity administered by the Department of Education, no doubt the Charity Commissioners would be doing what we are doing by statute. We are by statute saying that £90 per annum as an indication of special merit, if used by way of addition to the salaries of meritorious teachers, has a negligible effect. I do not think that one would quarrel with that proposition as it stands. £90 is now worth less than it was in 1840 when the fund first came into existence.

The difficulty is to agree with the reason given for article 7: that the new provision will enable the Department of Education to use the fund for other educational purposes which would be more beneficial to the recipient. I find that a little doubtful. Great may be the intellectual resources of the Department of Education, but £90 is only £90. If one's object is to indicate approval of the merit earned by those engaged in primary education, I am not sure that an addition of £90 to one's remuneration, to spend as one wishes, is not about as good a method as could be hit upon for conveying that approval as any other. If the Minister has any particulars to give—whether these are to be struck as medals or converted into volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica—perhaps he would intervene at this stage. He shows no disposition to intervene. Therefore, we shall be interested in due course to see what the Department of Education has hit upon.

Not only as the Member of Parliament for the constituency concerned but as a resident in a village which has one of the model primary schools in Northern Ireland and as the son of a primary school headmaster, I should like to take this opportunity of saying that many of the primary schools and the teachers who serve in them are amongst the very best aspects of life in the Province. Many of us would wish that much more than £90 per annum was available to indicate the highly meritorious and often unrecorded, progressive service which is given by those who run the primary service.

I go on to the next group of articles—9, 10 and 11. I am glad that these articles find their place in the order. Perhaps my hon. Friends and I may even have had something to do with the appearance of these articles in the order. I know that the Minister is very jealous of our claiming too much when these orders come forward, and perhaps he will be down upon me again for what I have just said. Nevertheless, the background, briefly, is that under the 1974 Act—which, God help us, is better than the 1973 Act—one of the defects is that Statutory Instruments, which in the rest of the United Kingdom are subject to the negative procedure and at any rate are scrutinised by the Statutory Instruments Committee, which is a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament and has done valuable work for at least a generation, are subject to no parliamentary procedure at all. There are a few exceptions. But, with those few exceptions, they cannot be prayed against. They are not examined by a Committee of this House. Only one person examines them, and that is the Examiner of Statutory Rules for Northern Ireland, Mr. Leitch. He labours away and deserves our gratitude, for his eye is not merely acquiline but positively microscopic. That is how it should be.

Let nobody think it futile that several times a year—I think that it is once a quarter—Mr. Leitch puts before hon. Members and this House the results of a minute examination of every one of these orders which my colleagues and I—with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross), who is charged with the duty of reading them all—accumulate in sequence order upon a shelf or a desk. We receive from Mr. Leitch the results of an acid examination of these Statutory Instruments to make sure that in no respect have the Ministers who make them exceeded the powers conveyed by statute. That is important enough in Great Britain, but it is absolutely vital in Northern Ireland where that is the only effective protection for the subject against an exceeding of statutory power—always involuntary, always benevolent, or at least nearly always benevolent—by the Executive.

Thanks to an arrangement which the Government made, we have an agreement that once a year we use part of a sitting of the Northern Ireland Committee to look at these reports by the Examiner. There are two justifications for that. The first is that I do not believe it right that any public servant who is essentially serving this House should work year in year out without a Committee of the House formally taking cognisance of his work. The second reason is that it gives us the opportunity to highlight certain serious cases of excessive or improper use of power or cases from which a general rule emerges. Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the order may be regarded as the fruits of Mr. Leitch as culled and crystallised by the Northern Ireland Committee, thanks to the procedures which, with the assistance of the Government. we have been able to set up. We welcome these articles and hope for more of them in successor orders to this one.

Finally, I come to articles 12 and 13. I cannot describe with what excitement my heart leapt when I realised that article 12 abolished the Ulster Land Fund. I hasten to explain, before that might be taken as evidence of malevolence on my part, that the effects of the abolition of the Ulster Land Fund will be exactly nil in practical terms. Public money will still be used by virtue of article 13 through the National Trust for purposes which every hon. Member would approve. Therefore, perhaps I should say a word about the National Trust and its place in this scheme.

Not only in Northern Ireland but in Northern Ireland also the public owes a great debt to the National Trust. If the National Trust had not existed nobody would have believed that it could have been invented. If the State back in 1913 had undertaken from public funds what the National Trust does, ever afterwards everybody would have said "It is impossible to do this except without public funds." Yet overwhelmingly with access to public funds since 1913—I hope I have the year right, but it was certainly early in the century—the National Trust has carried out marvellous work of preservation, preservation not of a dead heritage but of a living, tended, cared for, lived in and used heritage throughout the United Kingdom. If there is a minor contribution from public funds— and it will be only a minor proportion of the total expenditure of the National Trust— it is proper that it should be received and put to use in Northern Ireland.

I come back to the fact that this is to be done by the Department of the Environment, on its Vote I take it, instead of through the Ulster Land Fund. The reason for my emotion is that it was I to whom it fell, as Financial Secretary to the Treasury 21 years ago, to inform an incredulous and rather angry House of Commons that the National Land Fund established by the late Dr. Dalton did not exist, that it had no existence, that it could have no existence and that by virtue of the doctrine of the Consolidated Fund, whatever we decided to spend year by year had to come out of the current revenues and resources of the State, that is to ay out of the current effort of the economy as a whole.

That was the truth. The fund was a mere spoof. It was not a reserve upon which we were able to draw to enable us to do things without their being a charge in the current year. It was simply an illusion of that master of illusion Dr. Dalton. Why, he even succeeded for years in the illusory act of borrowing money at 2½ per cent. when it was worth 4 per cent. or 5 per cent. per annum. It was only a minor branch of his skill to create the illusion fund, the National Land Fund.

Although I explained that quite clearly to the House 21 years ago, I find that it is still treated with some incredulity and from time to time quotations from the relevant column in Hansard are made by witnesses before our Expenditure Committee and Public Accounts Committee. So it is that what the State spends in the year, the State inexorably raises in the year and what the community does in the year, it does out of its effort in the year.

What we do for the preservation of our Ulster heritage, an object that most Northern Ireland Members have strongly at heart, we shall do out of the current revenues and resources of the year because so it must be. In public finance, a.s in most other things, it is as well to have as little deceit and as much plainness as possible. I welcome the article because it will substitute what is straightforward for what was always a deception.

5.13 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

I wish to refer briefly to the question of parliamentary control which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his 21st anniversary and on the good work he did 21 years ago which we all remember. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for that. That is sincerely meant, even though I may have expressed it in a rather humorous way.

However, I disagree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the "fruits culled and crystallised". I agree with his remarks about Mr. Leitch. Certainly the House is indebted to that gentleman, just as we are indebted to primary school teachers, a marvellous breed who do wonderful work and do not get enough recognition.

I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman over articles 9, 10 and 11. In the order we have a further example of what I constantly complain about—the pernicious process of taking power of control away from Parliament and handing it over to Government Departments. It is disguised in the order under the headings of payments to councillors and payments by education and library boards to board members.

At present the actual amount of payment to a councillor or member of the board is subject to the will of Parliament. I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Down, South is correct, but that is my understanding. The sum is set out in regulations which are laid on the Table of the House for 21 days and are subject to negative resolution. However, in articles 9 and 10 it is stated without equivocation: Payments … shall not exceed such amounts or rates as the Department may determine. I believe that I am right always to be suspicious of Departments and Department officials. I do not believe in handing them too much power. It would be wrong for the House to agree to the proposal. In the context of the whole Irish experience, it is undesirable to hand over to a Government Department, and to the political head of a Department, the right to decide the payment that may be made to a councillor or board member.

I am not suggesting that once the order is passed Lord Melchett will, if he has time from his publicity exercises, start doling out large sums in an attempt to bribe coucillors and members of the board. That is not my suggestion, but the possibility is there. The order proposes that we hand over power. It is proposed that we take power away from Parliament and hand it to the political head of Departments. In allowing affairs to be determined by statutory rules and orders, Parliament has gone far enough in divesting itself of financial powers.

If we hand over powers to the Civil Service, we shall give to the political head of a Department additional powers of patronage over and above the power that he already has to appoint 60 per cent. of members to education boards. That is far too great an addition to the arbitrary powers of Stormont Castle that already exist. I should restrict the powers of Stormont Castle as much as possible. I have made that clear often enough.

We must remember that whatever we decide this afternoon will be followed by a Stormont Parliament, if and when it is created, and I am optimistic enough to believe that when Scotland has its Assembly we shall have once again an assembly in Parliament Buildings. Whatever the practice may be in England, I believe that the present system should be maintained. The order should be opposed, even though articles 9, 10 and 11 have been nurtured by the right hon. Member for Down, South and his hon. Friends.

Mr. Powell

I am not really in disagreement with the hon. Gentleman about the undesirability of determinations being made by Departments. However, the articles are an improvement on the existing position whereby these sums are being fixed without any statutory authority to do so. The articles are creating a statutory authority to fix the sums, though not to fix them by Statutory Instrument. They are a degree better than the existing position. It was on that ground that I welcomed them.

Mr. Kilfedder

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was, on behalf of himself and his hon. Friends, claiming paternity of the three articles. He seems now to be somewhat despising what is contained in them. If what he says is right, we should consider the three articles again and determine what is the best system that may be devised to keep control in the hands of Parliament rather than handing control over to the Civil Service and the political heads of Departments.

5.19 p.m.

Mr. Dunn

It may be that I have inadvertently misled the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder). If so, I wish to remedy that immediately. The order proposes to regulate the payment of allowances.

Mr. Kilfedder


Mr. Dunn

The hon. Gentleman's references to patronage seemed to indicate something much more deep and fundamental.

Mr. Kilfedder

There is the power to appoint 60 per cent. of the board.

Mr. Dunn

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would show me the courtesy that I showed him. Let him stand up and speak up or sit down and listen, as I did.

Mr. Kilfedder

If that is an invitation to intervene, I shall do so. Surely it is patronage when a Minister has the power to appoint 60 per cent. of the members of the education board. The hon. Gentleman cannot deny that. The board members derive payment for that office.

Mr. Dunn

It is rather like a tape recorder that from the same direction continues to play the same speech, including the same criticisms and the same allegations. Forgive me if I am no longer impressed by it.

I have attempted to bring greater realism into the order, and in so doing I wanted to clarify the practices of the past. I am sure that the House will want to acknowledge that payments of allowances to councillors in Great Britain are decided by regulation by the Department of the Environment. There seems to be no logical reason why we in Northern Ireland should be any different. I have now put the matter fairly and squarely before the House.

I turn now to the points raised by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). I can understand the right hon. Gentleman's response to article 7. Quite frankly, when the recommendation was made to me I had to consider which way the matter should go. I made inquiries just as the House, and certainly the right hon. Member, would expect me to make. I am given to understand that the teachers' representatives will be consulted about how the money should be used and to which objectives it should be devoted. I understand that the teachers have welcomed the proposals in article 7.

I say honestly to the right hon. Gentleman that if I thought that the £90 would be soaked up in administrative expenses or used to benefit anyone other than the children, I would certainly not propose it. We have had to frame it within the general circumstances of educational purposes, but I can assure the House that it will be used to the benefit of those concerned with the children and of the children themselves.

Mr. Powell

May we clarify that point? It will still be used in recognition of work of special merit which the principals of primary schools have achieved, though the form of the recognition will be different. I am sure that that is what is intended, but we may as well get it precise.

Mr. Dunn

It is indeed. This award will be a further encouragement to accrue benefits to the children. I do not want it to be submerged in administrative costs.

The right hon. Gentleman referred also to schedule 1. Under the Appropriation Order provision is made during each financial year for the annual amount to be charged to the Vote and repaid to the Consolidated Fund. Under schedule I the limits set in the order cover the capital amount which can be met over a specific period from the Consolidated Fund. Eventually it has to be recouped from the annual Vote either during one year or over several years during the phased programme. That was the intention of raising the limits as is done in schedule 1.

Mr. Powell

Does that apply also to article 8, or do the loans under that article appear in the departmental Estimates?

Mr. Dunn

The answer is "No". Articles 3 and 8 are quite different.

I commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which was laid before this House on 23rd June, be approved.

  1. STATUTORY INSTRUMENTS, &c. 17 words
  2. c985
  4. c985
  5. JUDGES 25 words