HC Deb 11 June 1997 vol 295 cc1125-6
1. Mr. Thompson

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans the Government have to extend democratic local government in Northern Ireland and reduce the number of quangos. [1376]

6. Mr. William O'Brien

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans she has to extend the powers of district councils; and if she will make a statement. [1383]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy)

The multi-party talks, which resumed on 3 June, are meant to achieve new local democratic arrangements for Northern Ireland as part of a wider political settlement. We have no plans to extend the powers of district councils in Northern Ireland, but Ministers will be visiting district councils in the coming months to listen to their views. I intend to consult widely with local interests in Northern Ireland during our current review of spending priorities, for example. The Government are reviewing quangos, and we shall examine the Northern Ireland situation in that context.

Mr. Thompson

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench. We have listened to that answer for 25 years. Is there really any need to wait for some political settlement in Northern Ireland before we return to proper local government in the Province?

Mr. Murphy

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. I remind the House that he and I were members of local authorities. I am sure that he agrees that local government is a cornerstone of good local democracy and of democracy generally. I cannot answer for the past 25 years, but if the talks that are currently occurring in Belfast result in a proper, balanced settlement and arrangements, I hope that we will not have to wait too long to see a proper system of local government that is accountable to all and accepted on both sides. We must understand that that outcome depends on the success or otherwise of those very important talks.

Mr. O'Brien

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. I wish him and the rest of the Northern Ireland team well in their endeavours to bring peace to Northern Ireland. On the efforts to improve local government facilities and responsibilities, will my hon. Friend consider the serious issue of arrangements for strategic planning in Northern Ireland when he meets district council representatives? People highlighted that issue for discussion when I was in the Province. I appeal to my hon. Friend to consider favourably any representations made to him regarding planning issues.

Mr. Murphy

I thank my hon. Friend for his good wishes. He has taken a long-standing interest in planning matters both as a Member of Parliament and as a former leader of a local authority. He will know that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs reported last year on planning. The Government have agreed to improve the consultative process and to give members of local authorities a more meaningful role in planning. However, I repeat that that can be achieved only in a proper spirit of partnership, which is possible only when there is widespread agreement on both sides of the community about a proper settlement in Northern Ireland.