HC Deb 10 February 1992 vol 203 cc746-71 9.37 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Richard Needham)

I beg to move, That the draft Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 14th January, be approved.

This is an important piece of legislation for Northern Ireland. Before going into the detail, may I highlight two aspects of it which I feel will lead to a radical improvement in the way in which district councils think and operate in the Province?

The first aspect is competitive tendering. Without doubt that has had the greatest impact in the past decade on the way in which the public sector does its job. We are entitled to demand that the services funded by taxpayers' and ratepayers' money are delivered in the most efficient and effective way. Competitive tendering, in the Government's judgment, achieves that.

The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating, but one has only to look at the savings and improvements in the efficiency and quality of services achieved by local authorities in Great Britain across a whole range of services. Liverpool, for example, contracted out its refuse and street cleaning at an estimated saving of £4 million a year. Kensington and Chelsea recorded a saving of £1.6 million. In Northern Ireland, the success of competitive tendering has extended to the health service, where savings of —7.4 million have been achieved; the education boards saved £1.2 million, and indeed the civil service itself saved —5.3 million.

Nor do I accept that competitive tendering reduces a council's powers. What it does is keep the councillor more in touch with the ratepayer rather than defending the actions of the council. That is not compulsory privatisation or compulsory contracting out. Councils retain responsibility for the service, and the order will allow council's direct service organisations to tender for the work. But councils will be required to specify and monitor the standard of service that they require, whether or not the service is provided "in-house" or by contractors. There will be no lessening of standards. In fact, standards should improve, since the inevitable consequence of introducing competition will be to widen the choice of contractors to councils, and that will lead to higher production, better services and lower prices.

There is one further issue on which I should assure the House, as far as competitive tendering is concerned. The Government are conscious of the potential for paramilitary exploitation. Every step will be taken to eliminate that risk, whatever form it takes. In article 21 of the order, additional powers have been taken, over and above those introduced in Great Britain, to allow the Department to specify certain information which a contractor must provide if he wishes to tender. That will be a filtration process and should thwart attempts to win contracts by the paramilitaries posing as bona fide contractors. We are not prepared to see better use of the ratepayers' money put on one side solely because of the threat of fraud, from wherever it comes. If that were to be the case, the whole of Northern Ireland could end up employed in the public sector. There will of course be difficulties in preventing exploitation by the paramilitary organisations and others. However, the Government are determined that they will not be allowed to muscle in, and because it is difficult to deal with the problem by way of primary legislation, the order also includes an article which gives a general power of direction over councils. This is an additional safeguard and will be used to take immediate steps to combat any paramilitary threat should it arise.

An equally important provision in the order is the proposal to allow the product of a 2p rate on the promotion of economic development. Nothing can be more frustrating for the many able councillors in Northern Ireland than for them to find that, under the present restrictions within the powers of local government, they can do so little to improve their areas.

There has been an immense change since I first became Minister with responsibility for local government some six and a half years ago in the number of councils and councillors now working cross-community in the interests of all. Dungannon, Londonderry, Foyle, Ballymoney, Lisburn, Banbridge, Fermanagh, Newry, Armagh, Downpatrick, Omagh, Strabane, to name but some, have set up imaginative and professional ways of promoting their areas. Even Belfast and Cookstown seem, at last, set to follow. The Tyrone economic development initiative and the Brownlow trust are examples of councils, jointly or individually, fully playing their part.

I want to see that grow and expand and I am only too happy to give councils an incentive to use all their talents in bringing pride and employment back to their districts. In the historic towns of Carrickfergus, Armagh and Downpatrick we have arranged a partnership between the Department of the Environment and the district council, where the Department of the Environment provides a town planner to provide the physical development and the conservation elements, and the council provides the administrative back up. Initiatives are channelled through a board, which is made up of elected representatives and officials of both councils and the Department of the Environment. That has proved to be a great success, attracting both commitment and development on the ground.

The order is also important because it sets out standards of behaviour and conduct for councillors. An updated code of local government conduct will be introduced after full consultation with district councils.

It is also important for councils to have clear and effective working arrangements. Those arrangements should be covered by standing orders, but unfortunately not all councils have them. Over time some standing orders have fallen out of use and are no longer effective. Article 33 of the order will allow the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland to introduce a revised set of standing orders, which allow for a statutory core for councils to follow. That provides a better framework so that business can be carried out fairly and reasonably, and in a way which reflects the interests of all members of the council. That provision will not be introduced until there has been full consultation.

No changes in the administration of the building control and environmental health services will take place until value-for-money studies are completed. If any changes are proposed councils will be fully consulted about the new arrangements.

There has been a considerable debate in the past about the way in which vacancies in district councils have been advertised. So the order strengthens the role of the local government staff commission and ensures that job vacancies are more widely canvassed. There is, of course, no intention to curtail the career opportunities of existing staff.

Finally, the local government auditor is given extra powers to prevent district councils from incurring unlawful expenditure and allows them to stop councils spending money on political publicity.

In conclusion, I believe that the order will not only ensure that local government spends its money more carefully and efficiently, but that it will lead to better services for the public. I also believe that the order will improve the working relationships within councils and the standing of councils by making their commercial and political behaviour more open to public view. I commend the order to the House.

9.45 pm
Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

The Minister and I seem to have drawn the short straw of being here, yet again, late—

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)


Mr. Stott

Well, latish on a Monday night, for the third week running.

I recognise that most of the hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland have been or still are serving members of city councils or district councils. I will restrict my remarks in order to allow them to bring to bear their personal experiences in this short debate, which affects the services provided by local government to the people of Northern Ireland.

The order is rather like the curate's egg. It is good in parts—and where it is good, it is welcome. Where it is bad, it is bad. It is my considered view that the Government have missed an opportunity to conduct a fundamental review of the nature and purpose of local government in Northern Ireland—something which I am doing on behalf of the Labour party. The Government are attempting to ride two horses at once. They are attempting to deprive local authorities of their extremely limited powers to provide services, while also attempting to promote a greater sense of responsibility in local councillors.

Part II of the order deals with competitive tendering, but I did not hear the Minister once use the phrase "compulsory competitive tendering". Let us not make any bones or have any dubiety about it: this is another example of the importation of failed English dogma into Northern Ireland. As I said to the hon. Members who represent the Province when we debated the Northern Ireland electricity order, why should we look into the crystal ball when we can read the book? We only have to consider what has happened on the mainland to see what compulsory competitive tendering has done.

I shall cite one or two examples. In my local authority, a group of its employees won the tender from the authority to administer and mow all public places, including public parks. As the Minister will know, I am an aging cricketer and during the summer I play cricket in a public park in Wigan. Unfortunately, those who won the tender to cut the grass and mow the strip did not take away the grass cuttings from the playing surface, which prevented every stroke I made from going for four.

The other example does not relate particularly to local government. The window cleaning service in the House of Commons has been privatised, but one of the employees was not vetted by the company that won the contract and he was charged by the police for stealing from Members' offices, and subsequently released. That is the kind of thing that tends to happen when public services are privatised.

There is something offensive about a group of well-paid individuals, such as Members of Parliament, sitting here to decide on lowering the living standards of some of the worst paid sections of the community. That is what CCT means—low pay and local authority workers being even more exploited than they already are.

Furthermore, CCT means not only a diminution in living standards for the local authority worker but a reduction in services for everyone. In the context of the eventual viability and effectiveness of local democracy in Northern Ireland, limiting the powers of local authorities to decide how they should provide services is singularly short sighted. Removing from local authorities the responsibility to provide services in the manner that they feel most appropriate is particularly inappropriate in Northern Ireland.

I recall that John Banham, the former controller of the Audit Commission and now director-general of the CBI, said in 1985: Privatisation is the last resort of a management that has given up. We support that view, for the Government have made competitive tendering compulsory because of their obsession with privatisation, no matter what harm it does to services, consumers and employees. The consumer has suffered under the Government's "cheapest is best" tendering rules. Contractors and councillors alike agree that, by cutting job security, wages and conditions of service, the Government are undermining long-term means of achieving quality of service. The Minister may appear before us in suit arid tie, but underneath he still wears the uniform of a district commissioner.

As I normally do in these debates, I have found something good to say about the Under-Secretary. I commend him on the one concession to reality that he has made since he issued the consultative document. We welcome the decision to include fair employment considerations in the factors that can be taken into account when agreeing contracts. It would be helpful if the Minister could state whether local authorities will have a statutory duty to take fair employment into consideration when deciding those contracts.

I also commend the Minister for articles 26, 27 and 28. We hope that local authorities will take up the opportunity of promoting economic development in their own areas allowed for in article 28, no matter how limited that provision is.

We approach part V with mixed feelings. While we recognise the importance of establishing minimum democratic standards in local government, we are disappointed that the Government have not done more to promote the best practices seen in councils such as Dungannon and Derry, among the others that the Minister mentioned. I would be interested if the Minister fleshed out some of that thinking. I am referring to power sharing and minority rights.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Is that done over here?

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

The Labour party should practise what the hon. Gentleman preaches.

Mr. Stott

I hear sedentary voices. If hon. Members wish to intervene, I shall give way.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

What hon. Members mean is that, in Great Britain, only hung councils work together and share power. It is another example of Great Britain asking Northern Ireland to do something that we do not do here.

Mr. Stott

The hon. Gentleman does me a disservice. He thinks that I am not acquainted with local government in Northern Ireland or in this country. In the rest of the United Kingdom, power is devolved to local authorities and the leadership of those authorities is determined not on sectarian but on political lines. What I am saying is what the Minister has already said. Some district councils in Northern Ireland work together for the betterment of their people, unlike certain city councils—which I shall not mention by name, although I am sure that hon. Members know them—which resort to a talking and shouting shop. No power can be given to them unless they get their act together.

Article 38 causes us concern—

Mr. Peter Robinson

Is the hon. Gentleman referring to the sort of shouting in which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) was engaging a short while ago, so much so that he lost the track of what he was saying in his attack on the Minister? Will he admonish his hon. Friend if he is against shouting in debating chambers?

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the ballot box that operates on this side of the Irish sea operates also in Northern Ireland. The same considerations pertain in Northern Ireland. People vote for those parties whose views are most closely associated with their own. The same democratic institutions that provide people to serve in local government in Northern Ireland provide for the rest of the United Kingdom. If it is right in the rest of the United Kingdom for those who can form a majority in a council to go ahead and run that council, it should be right for that to happen in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Stott

The hon. Gentleman has his point of view and I have mine. All we have to do is see what happens in local government in Northern Ireland. It would be my earnest intent and my hope that the House would devolve as much power as it could to local government in Northern Ireland. It is not possible to do that at present for the very reasons of which the hon. Gentleman is well aware. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) advanced his argument forcefully. Indeed, it seems that he was so forceful on fair employment that he drove the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and some other hon. Members to join the Tories in their Lobby to vote against fair employment in Northern Ireland. I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast, East remembers that.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what his attitude would be if his brother were murdered and in the council of which he was a member the Sinn Fein-IRA representatives praised the murderers and refused to stand as a mark of respect or to take part in any act of condolence? Would he shout in those circumstances?

Mr. Stott

I would hope that in those circumstances, which would be extremely trying and provocative, I would retain the dignity of an elected representative. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about Sinn Fein. My party has always said that it will not negotiate with Sinn Fein as long as it maintains contact with the IRA. The hon. Gentleman knows that.

As I have said, article 38 causes us some concern. There must be some supervision of local authorities to make sure that they do not exceed their rightful powers, but that is not to say that auditors should have the right to step in and pre-empt a decision as the prohibition order in article 38 would permit. It is a Napoleonic practice of the prefectural veto, which has no place in modern democracy.

We welcome article 41 and the prohibition of political publicity. Too much time and effort has been wasted on this issue in recent years and we look forward to the day when every local authority in Northern Ireland will be seen as a representative of the community which it exists to serve. If the article were applied to the Prime Minister and the Treasury in terms of the citizens charter, perhaps it would not have been introduced. On the whole, the order is good. It is good in parts and bad in others. If a Division is called, my hon. Friends and I may vote against it.

9.59 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

1 thank the Minister for the consultation that took place before the presentation of the order and for his responses to our many submissions, which clarified certain matters.

As others have said, the order is to be both welcomed and rejected. It is probably fair to say that it is one of the most far-reaching and fundamental changes in local government since 1973.

My party welcomes the proposals that deal with the new code of conduct and practice for councils and those that enable councils to engage in job promotion activities in their own localities. We are disappointed with the ideological transfer of the compulsory competitive tendering provisions from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Earlier this evening, the Minister referred to parity. There is no parity in the CCT provisions because local government in Northern Ireland does not have power over housing, education, health, social security, libraries, planning, water, roads, sewerage and so on. The CCT provisions will focus on a relatively small range of council functions, but that point has been missed entirely.

As a consequence, it is not inconceivable that the calibre of those wanting to represent their communities in a council chamber will be considerably diminished in quality if not in number. It is the duty of a local council, which is close to its community—especially in the context of the restrictive powers in Northern Ireland—to provide the services scheduled under the order for CCT. We accept that when the order is passed tonight, that will happen.

In each of the last three Northern Ireland debates, the Minister used the term "level playing field". If a different level playing field is to be applied to CCT, we should be comparing like with like. The guiding principle should be real competitive tendering. My party suggested to the Minister—although he did not take it on board, which is not unusual—that certain requirements should precede CCT. First, there should be a fair rate structure for employees and the maintenance of wages comparable with those already being paid to local authority employees. Secondly, there should be the proper provision of social security, sickness benefits and pensions to bind the outside employers to the employees. Thirdly, there should be appropriate and decent security of tenure of job—something that is not evident in the Southern health board, to which the Minister referred.

Fourthly, there should be full compliance with health and safety regulations. Fifthly, there should be real and full compliance with the requirements of the fair employment legislation. Sixthly—something that cannot be legislated for, but which will be omitted in the new regime—is the need for the maintenance and possible expansion of employment opportunities for local people resident in the district council areas. Our experience is that many district councils are major job providers. Work could be taken outside their areas, which would dramatically affect local economies.

Seventhly, and by no means least, there should be a guaranteed service by the potential outside contractor for a minimum of four years. That is the lifetime of a council. It would ensure that an outside contractor with a low bid in the initial stages, which wiped out other bidders and the ability of the council to employ its in-house work force, could not hold councils to ransom in the ensuing years. Those are the minimum requirements for the "level playing field" that the Minister said would be appropriate.

As to article 4(2), it is unwarranted for the Department to take upon itself unlimited powers in defining the work that should be subject to compulsory competitive tendering by way of an affirmative resolution. That unbridled power is totally unjustified in any reasonable democratic society.

Article 4(3) says that before an order by affirmative resolution is made, the Department shall consult such councils, such associations or bodies representative of councils and such other associations or public bodies, as appear to the Department to be desirable". In some circumstances, it would be desirable to consult a group within a council in order to hear balanced arguments for and against the extension of CCT.

As to articles 5, 8 and 13, I thank the Minister for responding to our strong representations for broader publication of details of the work for which tenders are invited.

In his opening remarks, the Minister said building control and environmental health services required further investigative consideration. I ask him to speed that process, because there is dissatisfaction and unrest among the employees of both the environmental health and building control groups, in the light of current uncertainty.

The extension of council interests into home safety is useful and appropriate for a local community. Councils will also be permitted at long last to become involved in industrial promotion, albeit that many district councils have already done so. However, I enter one caveat. I hope that the new power, which I know will be widely and sensibly used to great effect, will not be viewed as a substitute for the drive and initiative required from a central Government organisation such as the Industrial Development Board or Local Enterprise Development Unit, and that there will be at least a partnership between them. Earlier tonight, we heard of the difficulties confronting the 1DB. It would be easy in certain circumstances for that board to stand aside.

We welcome also the code of local government conduct and model standing orders, for which we pressed Ministers and the Department for many years. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) spoke of the need to control conduct in council chambers. I spent 32 years in local government, in the old dispensation before 1973, and in the new regime after that, and am aware of the need for adequate standing orders that safeguard the rights of all elected members. If they have followed the democratic process, and are duly elected to represent a section of the community, then whether or not I agree with them, they have a right to represent in the council chamber those who elected them.

There is ample evidence that a code of conduct and model standing orders should be implemented in the flagship of Northern Ireland local government—that is, the chamber of Belfast corporation—as soon as possible.

I am, however, disappointed that the order does not take an obvious further step and make provision, within standing orders, for the definition of a quorum of the council or for the composition of sub-committees of the council so that a cross-section of councils could be represented in the chamber—or, indeed, for a quorum of the sub-committees. The Minister may say that it is impossible to legislate for such matters; let me remind him that councils are elected according to proportional representation. Electoral law suggests that the composition of a council should reflect that of the community. Why should not the code of conduct and standing orders within a council chamber insist, on a legal basis, that the political composition of the council is reflected—again, on the basis of proportional representation?

Let me draw the Minister's attention to article 5/54 of the Widdicombe report, which states that local authorities should be statutorily required to include provision in their standing orders governing the composition of committees and sub committees with delegated powers to take decisions on behalf of the council. These provisions should provide:

  1. 1. for the composition of such committees and sub committees to reflect as far as practicable, the composition of the council as a whole except, in so far as individual parties or councillors might waive their rights".
We are disappointed that the Minister has not chosen to legislate in that regard.

I find it totally unacceptable that, after nearly three years—or four years, if we include the lead-up period—the local government staff commission on fair employment principles, which is supposed to be the watchdog for local government appointments in Northern Ireland, has not yet been able to formulate a code of practice for itself, although the law requiring it to do so was passed in 1989. We were promised that such a report would be published in September 1991, and would be available; we are now promised that it will be available in April 1992. The Minister must agree that that is an unconscionable time for such an important matter to be left hanging.

Finally, I wish to raise the question of political publicity. Other hon. Members have welcomed this aspect of the order, but it contains one glaring defect. I shall not go into the details and quote article by article; let me simply say that the prohibition affecting publishing and publicising has been withdrawn from the original draft, and we find that very puzzling.

I assume that my interpretation is correct. If not. I hope that the Minister will correct me. I understand that it will still be permissible for a council to place a banner outside its offices reading "Ulster says no", with or without planning permission, if the council itself did not pay for it. What I find especially puzzling and suspect is the fact that that appeared to be in the original draft, but is not in the order with which we are dealing.

Do we understand that the use of ratepayers' funds is prohibited—quite correctly—for the furtherance of party-political objectives, but that the council can erect banners, for instance, without any recourse to law?

I can refer the Minister to many instances throughout the country in which planning laws have been contravened. I am talking not only about the contravention of planning regulations in connection with certain party-political objectives, but about the erection of emblems, signs and flags representing proscribed organisations which have never been removed by either councils or the Department of the Environment.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to posters put up against the Anglo-Irish Agreement which was rejected overwhelmingly by the electorate in Northern Ireland, when we all resigned our seats and fought. Is it not a fact that the Minister took very firm action against these posters and that he prosecuted as hard as he could? In other words, he put the boot into every council that did this. Then, because it was found that they could put up these posters inside council properties—there was no need for any planning permission—the Minister was outwitted by the sharp Ulster wit of those people who wanted to keep their democracy and their democratic rights. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that it would be appropriate for the Minister to erect over Hillsborough, on behalf of the Secretary of State, a great notice saying, "Mr. Brooke says no because he is going to make no changes in security" according to today's News Letter in Belfast?

Mr. McGrady

I do not know whether or not to welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention, but it is not for me to cast aspersions on the suitability of the Minister, or his ingenuity—ingenuity which originally came from my part of Northern Ireland, South Down. I should be indulging in self-criticism if I engaged in such an exercise. I agree, however, that there was a certain reticence in applying the planning laws to the taking down of political posters from the city hall and elsewhere. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) acquiesces to the breaking of the planning laws, but that is a problem for him, not for me.

I thank the Minister for the dialogue that we have had with him over the last couple of years and for his sympathetic hearing, if not total acceptance of what we suggested to him. The order contains pluses and minuses, but I think that in totality local democracy in Northern Ireland will take a severe knock when the order comes into effect. Compulsory competitive tendering will sound the death knell of local government as we know it today. It cannot survive if all the services to which the order refers are given to outside contractors. The council chamber will then become a hollow shell. All services will be provided on an agency basis.

As for the need for financial efficiency and value for money, the hon. Member for Wigan referred to the low-wage syndrome that compulsory competitive tendering will create. One has to ask what will then happen. Low wages will have to be topped up by means of family credit and social security benefits. In the end, no savings will be made. People will have to work hard for a low wage. They will lose the dignity of being able to provide for their families through the sweat of their brows. To get people to work for a low wage so that then they have to tramp to social security means that they have to put out the begging bowl for that which is necessary to sustain a minimum standard of living. At the same time they are driven into —something which I thought was anathema to a Tory Government—the dependency culture, which is totally unnecessary and unwarranted.

Local government in Northern Ireland does not want to ride on the backs of its own ratepayers and of its own community—people on low wages. We know that we can get good services, efficiency and value for money within council chambers by judicial administration. We do not need compulsory competitive tendering to be imposed upon us. It is an ideological transfer of Tory dogma from one regime in Great Britain to Northern Ireland. The cap simply will not fit.

10.19 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) has said about compulsory competitive tendering. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman missed the mark somewhat when he suggested that CCT would remove any meaningful local government. The truth is that Northern Ireland has not had meaningful local government since its council system was destroyed in the early 1970s.

However, it is worth putting on record the fact that local authorities in Northern Ireland have relatively few powers. They have the right to decide on what day the bins should be emptied; to decide the opening hours of cemeteries; to say what community facilities should be provided in their areas and to pay for them; and to determine what recreational facilities should be made available. But, unlike councils in the rest of the United Kingdom, they do not have authority in respect of housing, health, education, planning and many other such matters. So far as those functions are concerned, Northern Ireland councils have simply a consultative role. Thus the Minister has missed a great opportunity for a much more wide-ranging review of the entire local government scene. He could have put forward proposals to make local government much more meaningful.

Mr. McGrady

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the major functions of local government were transferred to central Departments in 1972 and 1973 mainly because of the way in which those powers had been misused? Let the hon. Gentleman refer to the report of the Widgery tribunal, which investigated the causes of the civil unrest in Northern Ireland. If he does so, he will find that seven of the 11 causes were directly attributable to the activities of local authorities at that time.

Mr. Robinson

I am aware of a number of Roman Catholic councils that discriminated against their Protestant ratepayers, but I do not think that that is why these changes were introduced. They were recommended in the Macrory report, which recognised that there should be a central assembly or parliament to take over many of the powers that had been exercised by the councils. Unfortunately, with the removal of regional government, Northern Ireland was left with what has been called the Macrory gap. Westminster's authority is exercised by the Secretary of State and his Ministers, who do not receive any votes in Northern Ireland. Indeed, when their party puts forward its candidates in the forthcoming election those people are unlikely to get many votes. Even if the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) were to join the East Belfast Conservatives they would hardly be able to storm the ballot. I do not expect that the Conservative party will ever receive any meaningful ballot-box support in Northern Ireland.

By and large, the gap that has been left—this is the area in which the Secretary of State and his Ministers operate—could be better filled. Many of the powers exercised by Ministers or by quangos could be given to local authorities in the Province. I wish that in this order the Minister had addressed that matter.

The compulsory nature of the competitive tendering that the Minister proposes has been referred to. It is precisely the compulsory nature of the tendering to which I object. Like the Minister, I believe that competitive tendering could be to the advantage of ratepayers throughout Northern Ireland, but I believe that it could be advantageous without being compulsory. My district council in Castlereagh already puts many functions out to competitive tender. Indeed, that will be expanded in the coming year. In short, the Minister did not need to nudge us in this direction. I hope that the Minister realises that I do not take issue with him about the advantage that can be derived from competitive tendering.

Mr. Needham

If all councils had been like that of the hon. Gentleman, there would be no need to make it compulsory.

Mr. Robinson

If they had been like my council, they could have had the low rates that my council ratepayers enjoy.

The compulsory nature of the policy will be of concern to residents and will make it difficult for proper competitive tendering.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman offer guidance to the House and the Department as to how Castlereagh managed to ensure that those firms using competitive tendering did not employ people claiming to be unemployed and receiving social security? The Minister could perhaps share that information with his colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Services, who employ people who are paid by the state and are also involved in the competitive tendering process.

Mr. Robinson

The hon. Gentleman has raised an issue that requires me to be candid. There have been negative as well as positive elements to our experience. On the negative side, as a matter of principle our council has always asked the Department of Health and Social Service to ensure that those working on our facilities are properly registered with the Department and not—as it is referred to in Northern Ireland and elsewhere—doing the double. There have been many instances where people who have been working on council property have disappeared after investigations, precisely because they were on the double and their employer was willing to take advantage of that.

I shall relate another negative experience and ask the Minister if he can give some guidance on what to do in such circumstances. What happens when a council goes out to tender, takes the contract that costs the least and finds, once the contract has begun, that the tenderer is not living up to his or her claims, but it is not legally possible to terminate the contract or to require the tenderer to meet what the council considers to be the conditions of the contract? Does the council have to put up with the poorer service provided for the duration of the contract?

Before someone is actually doing the work, it is difficult to determine how good a job he or she will do. One can find oneself tied fast to a contract on which there is no flexibility or manoeuvrability by the tenderer as to what he or she is prepared to do. Usually, to improve the service to the necessary standard, the contractor has to take on a supplementary tender and copper-fasten the original tender, which will cost more. The contractor then faces a dilemma. He has paid more than the original tenderer suggested. He would perhaps have been better off accepting a tender from a company submitting a bid higher than the original tender, as that would have cost less than the total sum charged by the original tenderer plus the supplementary tender.

I do not know whether I have explained that complex position properly, but we have experienced such problems. It is not good enough to say that one has to be careful when choosing a tender, as we face circumstances in the next two or three decades that might be impossible to contemplate.

I think that the Minister missed opportunities and ducked his responsibilities on the issues of building control and environmental health. My council in Castlereagh is a member of a group and has as its partners councils in Lisburn, in Ards and in North Down, and Down district council for which the hon. Member for South Down has such affection. In terms of environmental health, my council acts as the employer council. In terms of building control, Down district council acts as the employer council.

As my council is prudent, the costs of administration for environmental health are probably about half the costs for building control. My council, therefore, has to pay additional administrative costs because of the poor housekeeping of the hon. Gentleman's council. In this financial year, while there is a small increase, probably even less than inflation, for environmental health administration, there is a 28 per cent. increase in terms of building control. The Minister will not be surprised to know that it is hard for my councillors in Castlereagh to swallow the fact that they have to look carefully at their budgets in every department and that they have been careful, to the extent that they have been successful in reducing the rates, when the people in Down spend our money as if there was no tomorrow.

Mr. Needham

That is exactly why we are undertaking the value-for-money studies. I have no doubt that as soon as they come out the hon. Gentleman's council will come very high on the list.

Mr. Robinson

I can confirm that the council will come high on the list. In every value-for-money study that has been carried out in insurances and in recreation, we have come top of the list. I should have thought that the answer for the Minister in terms of building control would be to allow the councils to be directly responsible without having the group committees. They would then have directly within their own responsibility the building control authorities. I accept that there are advantges in certain circumstances in councils joining together to consider certain areas of expertise in building control and in environmental health, but my suggestion of district councils being responsible for building control does not stop one council employing an expert in one area of building control and allowing that person to be used in other areas for a fee.

Mr. McGrady

Lest the House be misled by the hon. Gentleman's ingenuous remarks, I must point out that the budgets for building control and environmental health are fixed by the committees and not by the councils. The sharing out of the cake to district councils comes from the budgets fixed by the group committee.

Mr. Robinson

That does not take anything away from my argument. It has taken the hon. Gentleman 10 minutes from when I made the remark until now to think of an answer to my proposition. It is the cost of the administration which is relevant. Two Castlereagh councillors, two Lisburn councillors and two Ards councillors on a group that is administered by Down cannot tell Down that it has to change its whole council structure. The hon. Gentleman has an administration in Down and runs it in a way that is more costly than that in other areas. We can leave Down, although I ask the Minister to ensure that councils that are careful and prudent are not punished by the action of those who are imprudent and wasteful.

I also ask the Minister to consider the operation of the order. He may be able to give us guidance about how it will all get off the ground. I recognise that the Minister has outlined the areas in which it would be necessary for compulsory competitive tendering to take place and I understand that the councils will have certain responsibilities in terms of putting an advertisement in the local papers and in the technical journals to invite people to show an interest in putting in a bid.

That requires councils to undertake some detailed and lengthy work in preparing specifications for every aspect of their responsibilities. The lengthy nature of that work leads me to ask the Minister at what point he intends to stipulate that the councils should start compulsory competitive tendering. At this stage, we in local government are preparing our estimates for the next 12 months. Once those estimates are cast, they cannot be changed, because of compulsory competitive tendering: we have set our course for the next 12 months, which takes us into 1993. How will the order fit into local government's estimates, and how will it be implemented in terms of the amount of work that has to be done in preparing specifications?

Mr. Needham

We will introduce draft regulations about the timing later in the year, and we shall want to discuss with the councils when they will come into effect.

Mr. Robinson

I hope that I am not reading too much into the Minister's remarks. I understand him to be saying that the decision will not be an immediate decision affecting the next financial year, and that the councils will have the whole financial year in which to prepare specifications and prepare themselves for CCT.

That leads me to the next problem that councils will face. Councils are required in law, before 15 February each year, to prepare their estimates for the coming year. It will be a guessing game for any district council to determine what its rate is likely to be after the CCT process begins. I do not believe that any of us could evaluate the amount that any tenderer will specify in his proposals. I assume, therefore, that the next estimates will be based on what it would cost the council to do that work, so that if the council's direct labour force is outbid a net profit will accrue to the council in respect of that work over that financial year. If that is not the way in which the matter is to be dealt with, I shall be interested to hear.

Let me deal with some of the additional matters included in the order—first, with section 115 of the Local Government (Northern Ireland) Act 1972, as amended by the order. That section deals with the amount of money that councils can use for matters which, until the order was introduced, would have been to the benefit of all or part of the council area or to all or some of the ratepayers in that area. The wording has now been changed, and the proposed new subsection contains the words: unless the direct benefit accruing to its district or any part of its district or to the inhabitants of its district or any part of its district will be commensurate with the payments to be made. I do not understand how that is to be assessed and judged and by whom, or exactly what the use of the word "commensurate" is intended to convey. What the district council may believe is good value for the half penny that it uses for a particular purpose in its area may not be deemed by the local government auditor or the courts as "commensurate" with the payments made. Perhaps the Minister will say—before some councils get themselves into trouble and face surcharges—exactly what the effect of the provision will be.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) did not intend to convey the impression that those of us listening to his speech formed. He seemed to be talking in very negative terms about those involved in local government in Northern Ireland. I am sure that he would accept that the vast majority of the people in local government in Northern Ireland are very dedicated people who carry out a thankless task in a sensible and diligent way. To suggest that they are elected in some sectarian head count and that they should be treated in a less acceptable fashion than elected representatives on this side of the Irish sea is unfair and a slight on the people involved, in whatever party, in local government in Northern Ireland.

I suspect that that kind of view is encouraged by the code of conduct proposed in the order. I have read the draft code of conduct which has been sent to local authorities in Northern Ireland. There is not much in the code of conduct that hon. Members would object to. However, implicit in its being sent to local authorities is the view that people are not observing the terms contained in the code. I am sure that the Whips would not have allowed such a draft code to be distributed for this place. It seems to be based on the principle that each councillor must take every decision for his or herself and they should not listen to their parties, to which they should be loyal and which allowed them to become elected on a manifesto.

The Minister would be wise to make it clear that councillors in Northern Ireland should not take offence because the code of conduct is being introduced. He must recognise that the vast majority of those involved in local government are upright and decent citizens who do a very difficult task for very little recompense and thanks.

I hope that the Minister will consider the point raised by the hon. Member for South Down who referred—in a different fashion than I shall—to the expenditure that can rightly be made by district councils on publicity, advertising and information. I will not rest my case on the issue of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. A planning department was used politically by the Minister in the Department of the Environment to refuse planning applications for the posters to which reference was made earlier. The clearest evidence for that can be seen from the fact that the department refused, with the Minister's encouragement, planning permission for the "Ulster Says No" banners in areas where permission was granted for more offensive posters and banners, even in areas that were downright dangerous from the point of view of the traffic. It is clear that the planning applications were turned down because of political motivation.

Mr. Trimble

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as, under the legislation, permission for an advertisement of that nature can be turned down only on amenity or road safety grounds, it was clearly unlawful for political considerations of the kind referred to by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) to enter into the decision? The Minister acted illegally in that matter.

Mr. Robinson

The Minister can make his excuses later, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There was no doubt in local government circles that the Department was being used politically. As we are considering a code of conduct for councillors, perhaps there should be a code of conduct for Northern Ireland Office Ministers.

Mr. Needham

If the hon. Gentleman believes that I have behaved illegally, it was up to him and his friends to take the Department to court. However, during the time that I have been in Northern Ireland, I have always permitted hon. Members to stick their posters on to every available tree and on the back of every conceivable road sign, and there they remain. In fact, the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), since the past three elections, still in full colour adorns the byways of Northern Ireland. The posters are never taken down by the hon. Gentleman and his agents. They are all there totally illegally. I am quite convinced that, when it comes to the election, the hon. Gentleman will take on board the arguments of his hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) so that we will not see every lamp post covered in those posters. They are sometimes dangerous. Until now, I have let them stay because I thought that they were part of electoral practice in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robinson

Although it will brighten up his morning as he travels to work, the Minister will not find my face smiling down at him from the lamp posts, because in Belfast—the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) will confirm this—there is a practice of putting our posters on boards which are attached to telegraph poles. These are taken down—they are costly—after an election is out of the way.

Rev. Ian Paisley

If the Minister goes to North Antrim, he will not find that atrocious poster that has been issued in the House tonight. The people who put up posters in Northern Ireland happen to be those in the Workers party, which still has posters up from two European elections past. As in my hon. Friend's constituency, we all receive a letter from the Minister's Department telling us to take down those posters. In North Antrim we carry out the same practice. We put posters on board, then take them down and use the boards at the next election.

Will my hon. Friend go with the Minister to North Antrim, find all those posters and tell me the locality of them? I should be very grateful to go there and put up new posters over them for the next election which I shall contest against one of the Minister's female candidates.

Mr. Robinson

I am sure that my hon. Friend will probably find that an awful lot of his posters go astray during the election. People will take them down so that they can frame them and put them in their houses and have them for ever and a day.

On the section dealing with the prohibition of political publicity, I have some concern about what exactly the Minister is attempting to catch under it. The order, in tight terminology, indicates that In determining whether material falls within the prohibition regard shall he had to the content and style. It goes on to state: whether the material refers to a political party or to persons identified with a political party or promotes or opposes a point of view on a question of political controversy". That seems to be the basis upon which the Minister's officials would take any such decision. Very few decisions on services for local government, for example, would not be taken by a political party and not be opposed by another political party. Are we in Northern Ireland not allowed to give information to the ratepayer about facilities which clearly would be identified with the political party that put forward those proposals and which carried them through the council? If that is how tight the legislation may be, it will be a retrograde step. The loser will be the ratepayer, who will not properly find out about the services in his or her area.

I have some concern about the prohibition notices, but, in effect, they could turn out to be useful in local government in Northern Ireland. One of the great problems that many of us have had in local government in the past is knowing whether, at the end of the day, the Department, under section 115 of the existing Act, would approve the council spending money for a certain purpose. When councils write to the Department, or to the local government auditor, they get vague answers, if, indeed, they get an answer at all. Certainly they will not get a quick answer.

Will the Minister say whether, if a council were to notify the local government auditor that it intended, before a certain date, to spend ratepayers' money for a particular purpose, and if by that date the local government auditor had not issued a prohibition order under article 8(2)(a), the council could therefore assume that it had approval to proceed, and, if it did so, that no legal action or surcharge would follow? If the Minister can respond positively in that respect, many councils in Northern Ireland will view that as an advantage in the legislation. Certainly it would help in terms of giving guidance to them so that they do not get surcharged in the future.

10.50 pm
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South)

I shall make my normal protest about Orders in Council, and tonight I make it with feeling because there have been four speakers and we have one and a half hours to consider an order which will fundamentally change local government in Northern Ireland. It is nonsense to allow an hour and a half for such a subject and for such changes. It is absolutely ridiculous. The Minister will have some difficulty in answering some of the questions put to him. I do not think that he will get round to that. In the circumstances, I shall keep my remarks as short as possible.

There are 24 articles in the order which refer to compulsory competitive tendering. No one has any objection to public money, whether it be tax or rate money, being spent properly. My party would support a policy to spend it in the most economical manner. But it should be introduced not for ideological reasons, but on the basis of the logic of the case. The Minister is optimistic about implementing this departure from existing practice by 10 April—three months from this evening. He will have some difficulty in doing so.

Article 19 extends the exclusion by providing that the council must not take into account any political, industrial or sectarian affiliations or interests of contractors or their directors, partners of employees". That liberal sentiment would doubtless be laudable in the rest of the United Kingdom, but in Northern Ireland it means that a council could be obliged to accept a tender from a front organisation which has been known to be operated by a paramilitary grouping. It will have no option but to take that tender and to consider it. That is the greatest threat to the policy of introducing compulsory competitive tendering. It is more than likely in certain council areas that that could open the door to paramilitary involvement, either directly through bogus firms, or indirectly through intimidation. It is not impossible that we would get a CCT war breaking out between rival paramilitary groups, bent on extending their geographical area of influence, and on increasing their financial return to get weapons and so forth.

We would welcome the establishment of a scheme to allow councils to provide financial help in the event of an emergency or disaster. It would have been better if the word in the order was "shall" rather than "may". Surely council officials and councillors are quite capable of looking after matters without having to go back to the Department every time for permission.

Article 27 on the promotion of home safety is welcome, but it is spoiled by the realisation that no new money will be coming from the Department to implement it properly. There is a strong possibility that, unless finance is made available, that excellent idea will fail.

The Minister and other hon. Members referred to article 29, which introduces a code of practice for local government. Although the Minister will not have time to answer me, I should like to know why he has introduced the code. Many councils in Northern Ireland have standing orders and behave properly. It is only fair to them for the Minister to tell us what councils caused him to decide on a code of conduct.

Article 31 refers to the election of chairmen. It has been known for years in Northern Ireland that confusion appears to preside at the annual general meeting of councils, particularly in those areas where political divisions are balanced. Can the Minister explain how the order will change that? We will wait to see what effects it has in the future.

Will article 36 remove any meaningful function from elected representatives when it comes to making appointments to their councils? A letter about that change was sent to every district council clerk, but it was not sent to hon. Members. We were sent the order and the explanatory documentation, but the district clerks received a letter about building control and environmental health services. However, the order makes no reference to either of those functions. The second paragraph of the letter states: First, it may be helpful it I explain that the draft Order does not refer by name to either Building Control or Environmental Health. The Order merely amends and expands that section of the Local Government Act It is grossly impolite of the Northern Ireland Office to send out a copy of the order to us, the legislators—an order that will be passed by the House, even by this bad procedure—without making us aware of the thinking behind that article.

Article 47 refers to the chief electoral officer. Could the Minister clear up the confusion that seems to exist in Northern Ireland about the powers of that officer? To whom is that officer responsible? Who will oversee and monitor the way in which he performs his duties? Perhaps the Minister will write to me about that.

I object strongly to the proposal in article 38, which gives the local government auditor power to interfere in the day-to-day running of councils. It is obviously the duty of councillors to make decisions and to bear responsibility for them. How will the auditor be made aware of the decisions to which he would object? Who will play the role of informant? Will one of his deputies monitor the financial affairs of each council? Will council officers become informers for the auditor? If that happens, it will cause a lot of bad feeling in councils between officials and councillors.

I shall conclude because of the lateness of the hour.

10.58 pm
Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) said about the Order-in-Council procedure.

The order introduces radical changes in local government in Northern Ireland and introduces the concept of competitive tendering. When those changes were introduced for England, Wales and Scotland they were subject to days and days of debate, which took up pages and pages of the Official Report. Hon. Members representing other parts of the United Kingdom were able to discuss the changes in Second Reading debates. They were able to have a Committee stage, to move amendments, to have a Report stage and a debate on Third Reading. Contemptuously, we are left with one and a half hours in which to debate an order of 43 pages. I have protested myself on the Floor of the House about the way in which the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives are being treated. The Government are guilty of callously denying to the Ulster people their fundamental parliamentary right of being able, through their Members of Parliament, to move amendments to this order or any other measure affecting Northern Ireland.

In effect, Northern Ireland Ministers are throwing on the Table of the House a legislative measure, and saying to the parliamentary representatives of the people of Ulster that they can either take it or leave it. I intensely dislike that attitude. It is not something that one would expect in a democracy or in what is regarded as the mother of Parliaments. I cannot see why the Government adamantly refuse, even at this late stage in the life of the Parliament, to give justice and democracy to the people of Northern Ireland. They say to the politicians representing seats in the Province that they should talk with their parliamentary constitutional colleagues to get political progress, but the Government have it in their power to give, at a stroke, real democracy to the people of Northern Ireland, but they flatly refuse to do so. I know from talking to them that the people of Ulster resent the way in which they are being treated. They expect citizens of Northern Ireland to be treated like the citizens of any other part of the United Kingdom.

I regret that the Government refuse to do this. In the coming election, the people of Northern Ireland, and certainly the people of North Down, where there is a Tory candidate, will have the opportunity to vote for democracy and the rights of the people or for the status quo—this form of colonial government. The latter is what they will be voting for if they vote for the Tory candidate who is opposing me in my constituency. That is an admirable choice for the people to have, and it will be available in other constituencies. People in Northern Ireland will use their vote wisely to make a protest and to make it in the best, most fair and democratic manner.

If I had the right and the power to do so, I would amend the order, because local government in Northern Ireland needs to be vested with greater power to deal with, for instance—I shall pick only one item because time is short—environmental blight. An example is the scandalous situation in my constituency, where the owner of Geddis farm, at Crawfordsburn, an area of great scenic beauty and close by Crawfordsburn country park which attracts thousands of visitors every year, uses his land as a dump.

I invite everyone in the House and the media to visit Crawfordsburn to see the eyesore that Geddis's farm presents to everyone who lives in the area and to everyone who travels along the road past the farm. It is a downright disgrace and an insult to all those who are concerned to preserve the beauty of the area. I have urged the Government to vest the property because I think that that is the only way in which such an appalling nuisance can be brought to an end.

I tabled a question to the Minister in which I asked him to vest the property. I cannot remember his exact words but his answer was in the negative. It is with the utmost sincerity and fervour that I make a further appeal to the Minister to vest the property. I do so on behalf of residents and everyone else who is concerned about the environment.

It is clear that the owner of the farm, Mr. Geddis, is trying to blackmail long-suffering residents into agreeing to a housing development. That is what he wants. If he succeeds, he will be prepared to clear the rubbish, the dirt, the filth and all the vehicles that are littered throughout the farm, including a vehicle which has "knackery" written across it. He has said that he will make an application that there be a knackery on the farm. That is designed to annoy the residents even further. It is clear that he wishes to force them into agreeing to a housing development. I have urged residents not to give way to blackmail and threats.

On Saturday or Sunday night, Mr. Geddis dumped a dead animal—I believe a donkey—and it is in full view of the people who pass by the farm. It is no longer a joke. People should not be able to treat other residents with such impunity. It is an appalling situation that must be rectified without further delay.

I ask the media to take an interest. If the media were to focus their cameras on the farm and shine the limelight upon it, Mr. Geddis might be persuaded to clear the rubbish. As things stand, he will not do anything. On behalf of all those whom I represent and of others outside my constituency who visit Crawfordsburn country park, or who pass along the road that is adjacent to it, I make a further plea to the Minister. I ask him to see what he can do to bring the nuisance to an end.

There is no time to debate all the articles in the order. I shall conclude by asking the Government to re-examine local government in Northern Ireland. Let us have a full survey. We need not piecemeal legislation but radical change, but that must take place with the introduction of a Stormont Assembly or power that will have the authority to bring Ministers and civil servants before it to question them and examine policy and what is happening in the name of the people of Northern Ireland. Failing that, or until that happens, I make one further appeal: a Select Committee should be established to deal with Northern Ireland affairs. That is something that we need desperately. That would enable the parliamentary representatives of the people of Northern Ireland to thrash out the various issues that have been raised this evening.

11.9 pm

Mr. Needham

This has been a wide, varied and fascinating debate on local authority provision in Northern Ireland. Virtually no stone in any corner of the Province remained unturned.

The hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) made an elegant electioneering speech about colonial government in the Province, which he slightly undermined when he spoke about Mr. Geddis's farm. That farm is a disgrace and a tip. No one could have tried harder than the hon. Gentleman and I—and everybody living locally—to do something about it. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is because we have democratic procedures and the rule of law that we have to abide by the judgment of the court. If we had a colonial regime, no doubt the matter would have been dealt with much more expeditiously than either the hon. Gentleman or I have managed to achieve. I give him my further guarantee that I will, once again, consider what can be done.

I shall slip as quickly as possible through the many varied questions raised by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe). He asked how article 21 would deal with the danger of paramilitaries in compulsory competitive tendering. We understand the difficulties and dangers, which is why article 21 gives the Department special powers to deal with that. We shall all have to look closely at how it works in practice.

On article 29, the hon. Gentleman asked about those councils that have standing orders. I agree that many councils in Northern Ireland have excellent standing orders, but the point of the article is to deal with those that have not.

The point of article 36 is that, in our judgment, a business ratepayer should have the same rights as a local elector when it comes to looking at the books. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the building regulations, the environmental health offices and the Department of the Environment letter that he said had been sent out. I am sure that my officials will have listened carefully to his remarks. They have to listen carefully almost every day, in the privacy of my office, to my remarks about the language they use in the letters that they send. I am sure that they will have equally listened to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. As to the matter of the chief electoral officer, and the question of to whom he is responsible, the hon. Gentleman was right to say that I would not know. I shall write to him. Indeed, I asked that very question only two days ago.

On the question of how local government will determine what is spent by a council beyond its remit, that is a matter for the local government auditor by reference to the relevant statute. I am sure that chief executives and clerks, who have a close working relationship with the local government auditor and a good knowledge of the law, will be able to advise councillors if they go beyond their powers.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe

We would not wish there to be any confrontation between chief officers and councillors. That would be detrimental to the running of the council.

Mr. Needham

I understand that point, and it is something that we must all bear in mind.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said that local government has little power. I agree. I make no bones about the fact that I should like local authorities to have more powers. The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) cited the reasons why that is not the case. I do not believe that it is possible to expand those powers, other than by agreement with all the main political parties in the Province, probably in the context of a wider political settlement.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East raised the question of a majority. Of course a majority is fine provided that it is in a plural political system in which majorities can change. When majorities are determined by one community or one tribe, after a while the minority becomes fed up because its views are never expressed. It does not matter whether that is in the east or the west of the Province. The elliptical message of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), who is listening to my words with such care, is not necessarily confined to competitive tendering. I accept that competitive tendering needs to be carefully monitored. The Department and the councils will have to work closely together to monitor how it works in practice.

As to not meeting the specification and having to refer back for an additional contract, it does not appear to me to say much for the contract terms—but that is an important practical point, and I will consider it and return to it.

As to what amounts to political publicity, the Government will introduce a code of practice which I hope will make the situation clear.

Reference was made to the local government auditor and how much money can be spent. If the auditor has not advised councils that they may spend money under section 115, and does not issue a prohibition order by a given date, on that basis the council may proceed. However, I cannot tell the House what the local government auditor may decide to pre-empt.

As to the proposal to amend section 115 to provide for benefit being commensurate with the payments made, it will be a matter for councils to determine the level of expenditure. It will fall to the local government auditor to decide whether he agrees. If he does not, he will let the council know. That returns to the point I made about the need for officials to work closely together.

The hon. Member for South Down raised a number of points. He welcomed some aspects of the order and berated others. I understand why he does not welcome compulsory competitive tendering, but, having listened to his argument, I cannot for the life of me understand why refuse collection should not be contracted out.

I ask right hon. and hon. Members to consider the current standard of refuse collection in the Province. If that is the best that can be done by those employed by local authorities, there is every argument for giving an opportunity to outside private contractors, provided that there are sufficient safeguards and specifications built into their contracts.

Eighty per cent. of services contracted out in the rest of the United Kingdom have stayed in-house. The hon. Member for South Down said it was a matter of passing money around, because reducing wages meant reducing the opportunities for people to spend and to save money. Money saved by councils, hospitals, education authorities and the civil service means that there is more money left in the public purse to spend on other services. If, as I said in the previous debate, the argument centres on low wages, those low wages have to be picked up through the tax or family credits system, rather than taken out on the ratepayer—who, after all, is the consumer who pays the money for those services to be provided.

The hon. Member for South Down asked about employment for local people in those services. The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) may know better, being a greater expert on the social chapter than I, but I have the feeling that trying to employ local people in particular areas for particular jobs infringes the social chapter, and would not be allowed under European directives.

I should have thought that in a reasonable democratic society, services should be competed for, and I do not accept that that in any way undermines the role of councillors. It allows the councillor to stand back a bit and to ensure that services are provided efficiently, to the highest quality, and in the best interests of the ratepayers whom he has been elected to serve.

The hon. Gentleman referred to environmental health and building regulations. I mentioned the value-for-money studies that are to take place. I agree that we need to get on with them, and that a decision needs to be made.

The hon. Member for South Down expressed the hope that the increased economic powers being given to councils would not replace in any way the efforts of the Industrial Development Board and the Local Economic Development Unit. My answer to that is: they had better not. If either organisation imagines that it has an excuse to do less, that would fly in the face of everything that the Government propose, which is to increase the involvement of the partnership. I trust that it will give councils greater leverage in achieving that.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about proportionality, but I hope that he will, on reflection, understand the practical difficulties to which it can give rise.

Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland, where some representatives believe in holding the ballot box in one hand and the Armalite in the other, it is very difficult to find sensible ways in which the amount of cross-community activity in councils could be increased if proportionality were forced on them. Having examined the arguments carefully, I do not believe that that would help us to build on what is already working well in Northern Ireland: many councils are working together closely and harmoniously. Some slightly impolite comments have been made about Belfast, but I do not believe that it will be long before Belfast follows, and I feel that it should be encouraged in that regard.

Mr. Trimble

The Minister will recall that, a number of years ago, Belfast council—which is in the habit of putting members of parties other than the majority party on committees—commissioned a survey of experience in England and Wales. That survey revealed that Belfast's record in regard to sharing out posts was better than that of England and Wales.

Mr. Needham

I do not think that it is very valuable to criticise one council or another. My concern is for all councils in Northern Ireland to work together as closely as they can. There has already been a dramatic change, and I believe that that process of change will continue.

Banners and publicity have been mentioned. Graffiti is a problem in Northern Ireland; I have examined that problem very closely, as did my predecessor, the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), and I must say that I could see no practical way out of it.

I am delighted to hear that the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) is going to take down all his posters; that will make it unnecessary for me to send him the bill that I have been running up over the past six and a half years for taking down all the posters on the back of all the road signs around his constituency. He may, of course, be so busy with his books when he is travelling that he has not noticed the very efficient poster campaign which has been undertaken on his behalf, and which has involved a large number of Northern Ireland road signs; during the last election, it even covered some in my area.

Let me deal with some of the other points raised by the hon. Member for South Down. I do not believe that there will be any need for redundancies. Yes, the draft regulations will be circulated among all councils and interested parties for their comments. The hon. Member for Belfast, East asked about timing. I think that it will be towards the end of 1993 before the first tranche can go out.

The hon. Member for South Down talked about the delay by the local government staff commission in drawing up the employment and appointment procedures. I accept his criticism. This is a difficult matter and we must ensure that we get it right and secure agreement; but we shall act as quickly as we can.

I hoped that the hon. Member for Wigan would do rather better than the daft suggestion made by his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who, in the opening debate, unveiled proposals for an "unemployment chapter" for Northern Ireland. What we heard from the hon. Member for Wigan, however, was the pay-up-to-the-trade-union chapter. In my judgment, competitive tendering means giving the ratepayer better value for money. Is the hon. Gentleman interested in the consumer, who pays, or in the unions, who currently pay the Labour party? I believe that we should try to introduce a system in Northern Ireland that provides the ratepayer with the maximum service at the minimum cost. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he often says that the ratepayers have not much money, and we are talking about the most deprived area of the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman asked about fair employment, and inquired whether the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1976 placed a statutory duty on district councils to ensure that the rights of minority groups were protected. The Act bites with equal force on both the public sector and the private sector and places a duty on district councils not to enter into contracts with unqualified employers. That is a clear and precise statutory requirement. To overlay it with a further requirement would be confusing. It is very difficult to see how such a provision could be interpreted or applied consistently across the board beyond what we already do.

Although the provisions of the order do not go as far as hon. Members would like—in some instances by giving more powers to local authorities—while going too far in other respects over the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering, I believe that overall they represent the right step for local government in the Province at the moment and that they will be welcomed by the vast majority of district councils and their officials in Northern Ireland. I commend the order to the House.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 105, Noes 43.

Division No. 75] [11.25 pm
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Plymouth)
Amess, David Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Arnold, Sir Thomas Currie, Mrs Edwina
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Davis, David (Boothferry)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Dover, Den
Blackburn, Dr John G. Dunn, Bob
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Emery, Sir Peter
Bottomley, Peter Fallon, Michael
Brazier, Julian Fenner, Dame Peggy
Burns, Simon Forth, Eric
Burt, Alistair Franks, Cecil
Butterfill, John Freeman, Roger
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g) Gale, Roger
Carrington, Matthew Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
Carttiss, Michael Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Chope, Christopher Gregory, Conal
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Rossi, Sir Hugh
Hague, William Rowe, Andrew
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Sackville, Hon Tom
Harris, David Shaw, David (Dover)
Hayes, Jerry Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Irvine, Michael Shelton, Sir William
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Kilfedder, James Skeet, Sir Trevor
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Kirkhope, Timothy Speller, Tony
Knapman, Roger Steen, Anthony
Knight, Greg (Derby North) Stevens, Lewis
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston) Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Knox, David Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Lightbown, David Summerson, Hugo
Lord, Michael Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Maclean, David Taylor, John M (Solihull)
McLoughlin, Patrick Thompson, Sir D. (Calder Vly)
McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Mans, Keith Townend, John (Bridlington)
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Twinn, Dr Ian
Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick Viggers, Peter
Miller, Sir Hal Waller, Gary
Mills, Iain Ward, John
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Morrison, Sir Charles Warren, Kenneth
Moss, Malcolm Watts, John
Needham, Richard Wheeler, Sir John
Neubert, Sir Michael Whitney, Ray
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Widdecombe, Ann
Norris, Steve Wiggin, Jerry
Paice, James Wolfson, Mark
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Wood, Timothy
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Porter, David (Waveney) Tellers for the Ayes:
Rhodes James, Sir Robert Mr. Irvine Patnick and
Riddick, Graham Mr. Tim Boswell.
Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Mallon, Seamus
Beggs, Roy Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Cousins, Jim Morley, Elliot
Cryer, Bob Paisley, Rev Ian
Dalyell, Tam Robertson, George
Dixon, Don Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Dunnachie, Jimmy Salmond, Alex
Evans, John (St Helens N) Short, Clare
Foster, Derek Skinner, Dennis
Foulkes, George Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Godman, Dr Norman A. Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Golding, Mrs Llin Stott, Roger
Gordon, Mildred Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Haynes, Frank Trimble, David
Hood, Jimmy Vaz, Keith
Illsley, Eric Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Kilfoyle, Peter Wigley, Dafydd
Leadbitter, Ted Wise, Mrs Audrey
Lewis, Terry
McFall, John Tellers for the Noes:
McGrady, Eddie Mr. William Ross and
McMaster, Gordon Mr. Clifford Forsythe.
McNamara, Kevin

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 14th January, be approved.

    1. cc770-1
    2. MILK 63 words
  2. CONSOLIDATION, &c., BILLS 86 words
  3. c771
  5. c771
  6. HEALTH 28 words
  7. c771
  8. AGRICULTURE 28 words