HL Deb 10 February 2003 vol 644 cc1-10GC

3.5 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

Perhaps I may apologise for the two or three minutes' delay. I explained to the Deputy Chairman that I would be answering the last Question in the Chamber. It slightly overran the proceedings in the Grand Committee, for which I apologise.

I am asked, before coming to the main business, to say a few words about the two Northern Ireland orders on the Order Paper for approval by the House today. On the Order Paper they are marked as dinner break business, but it has been agreed by the usual channels that it would be more convenient to continue with the Courts Bill until about 8 p.m. and then to take the orders.

I beg to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Strategic Investment and Regeneration of Sites (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.

The purpose of the order is to provide for the creation of a strategic investment board and to allow the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister to hold, manage, develop and dispose of the transferred military and security sites. Specifically, the order takes forward the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative which was announced in May last year. It was developed jointly under devolution by the Government and the devolved administration. I hope that Members of the Committee will regard this as a key initiative.

It will help the administration to take a long-term, strategic approach to investing in the infrastructure of Northern Ireland. It will offer an opportunity to turn symbols of conflict and division within Northern Ireland into ones of prosperity and regeneration. More directly, it will contribute to a tangible improvement for the people of Northern Ireland by improving public service infrastructure and the benefits to be derived for the social and economic regeneration offered by the former military and security sites.

The order therefore provides for a strategic investment board which will bring a new approach to managing and financing infrastructure programmes. It should bring greater expertise and management focus to the public sector. We hope that it will provide a centre of excellence; a source of advice to the Executive as it sets its overall investment plan and to individual Ministers and departments as they procure individual projects. This must be the best way to use such specialist resources.

The order provides for the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister to make use of the transferred military and security sites to achieve major economic and social regeneration. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will work with other government departments and social partners in taking forward that regeneration.

The provisions of the order were subject to a number of consultation exercises held throughout Northern Ireland and the views of local political parties, businesses and the trade unions were obtained.

The Strategic Investment and Regeneration of Sites Bill reached the First Stage in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It did not receive a Second Reading. Some have said that the Bill would not have passed Second Stage in the Assembly, but I remind Members of the Committee that the Bill had previously been agreed by the Executive and had the full support of the two largest parties within the Assembly. Indeed, a project board made up of nominees of the four main political parties represented in the Executive advised both the Northern Ireland and direct rule administrations on the preparation of the legislation.

The idea behind the board has wide support on the clear basis that it will add value to make investment happen and will not undermine the responsibility of individual Ministers. The section on sites does not prescribe any particular course of action, but provides a range of options. In taking this forward, plainly we will look for the widest possible consensus.

We are here to carry through work previously agreed by the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I cannot see ultimate value in speculating what might have been, particularly at a difficult time for the institutions of Northern Ireland. I recognise that not every party in Northern Ireland supports all aspects of the order. That is not an experience I have found common in Northern Ireland at the present time. I know of the debate surrounding the need for a strategic investment board and the proposals for regeneration. I commend the order to the Committee.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Strategic Investment and Regeneration of Sites (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Smith of Clifton

I have tabled an amendment to the order, which we shall consider when we debate the order in the Chamber tomorrow. I have two difficulties with the order, one of which was alluded to by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal. The order has had a bumpy passage in the Assembly. It was presented on two occasions and was pulled on both because the two main parties would not have been able to muster a majority in favour of it. One can put an emphasis on the wishes of the Executive, but looking at the wishes of the Assembly, which are sovereign in this matter, the order would not have been passed.

Therefore, we have the problem that we know the attitudes of a majority of the Assembly Members and every party, apart from the SDLP and the UUP, has raised objections to this. That is a broad, rainbow coalition. We must ask ourselves whether in its present form the order should go through, bearing in mind that it would not have received majority support in the Assembly.

My other problem relates to the composition of the strategic investment board. That is referred to in my amendment which we shall discuss tomorrow. It is a wide-ranging agency; it has a broad remit. The noble and learned Lord said that it would discuss and seek as broad a consensus as possible as to its mode of operation on various policies and projects it undertook. I grant that being that wide ranging has the advantage of flexibility, but the flipside is that it is ill-defined. Matters are therefore made worse by the fact that a number of key stakeholders, particularly those from the business community and the voluntary sector, are excluded.

That is unfortunate, bearing in mind the fact that the PPP working group in Northern Ireland forcefully suggested that business and voluntary groups should be involved in strategic policy planning. If the strategic investment board is not concerned with strategic policy planning, I would like to know what is.

I therefore have two problems. In relation to the first, it is up to the House to decide whether we should be pushing forward an order which would not have received majority support in the Assembly. The second is more important and deals with the composition of the strategic investment board. I give notice that I will be pursuing my amendment in the Chamber tomorrow.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble and learned Lord, first, for helping us to set up the Grand Committee so that we can debate the serious Bills that now come to us as statutory instruments in a two-stage manner. That will be helpful. Your Lordships would want and should have an opportunity to scrutinise the orders seriously. More importantly, the key question that we should ask in the Committee and in the Chamber, when the orders come before it to be passed, is whether we are sufficiently content that the Northern Ireland Assembly would have passed the Bills, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, said. We should be sure that the orders represent what the people of Northern Ireland want.

We should be wary of imposing laws on the devolved administration in Northern Ireland. Power may not be devolved at the moment, but I hope that we all work with a devolved legislature in mind. That is important.

I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, had to say, and I intend to explore it a little further. It seems to me that there is a dispute within the Assembly between the DUP and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. As far as I can understand from the politicians from Northern Ireland to whom I have spoken, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party are content with the order and believe that it is the right thing to do and that this is the right way in which to manage it. Again, the emphasis is on management.

It is a good thing for Northern Ireland to have ownership of the sites transferred from the British Government to the Northern Ireland Government. I understand it to be an extremely good deal. Per se, it is a good thing for Northern Ireland, and it creates an opportunity for the proper development of the assets. However, I have had some happy and less happy experiences in government quasi-companies in Northern Ireland—one or two officials may remember things such as Positively Belfast and the Tall Ships—in which government funding got mixed up with private-sector funding and the business was run by a non-parliamentary board. I counsel caution to those responsible for setting up the structures within which the development board and the development corporations that are envisaged will manage the assets. I am nervous that there is dissent in the Assembly and, perhaps, in the Executive, although I am not sure whether that is so. I would like to be comfortable in my mind that the dissent in the Assembly was not such as to make it difficult for whatever organisation, investment board or development corporation to operate.

Northern Ireland is a small country. I have gained and suffered from the fact that, if two or three key people wind up a few journalists and others, a huge amount of damage can be done, casting doubt on the efficacy of what is being done. On one occasion, BBC news cast doubt on the accounts of a company of which I was chairman. It was a company similar to this and had £500,000 of government money—not a lot nowadays, but a lot then. I did not know that this was coming. It was out of context and did a huge amount of damage to what we were trying to achieve. That can happen only too easily, so it is important that we do not impose on the Northern Ireland Assembly legislation that it does not want. Secondly, if we believe that it is the right thing to do—and I believe that these projects should come under the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, covering the spectrum of the SDLP and the unionists—the overseeing Minister must be certain that there can be no criticism that is not answerable in the way that the directors of these companies work, report and oversee, the input from the NAO, and so on.

Lord Rogan

Before I speak on this, the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, prompt me to say that many of us in Northern Ireland thought that scurrilous accusations were made against him. Most of us in the business community and civic society in Northern Ireland felt, and still do, that he is a most honourable man. He behaved most honourably in what he did with regard to the Tall Ships, and I would have a clear conscience if I were him.

I am pleased to welcome this order. My only regret is that it must be considered here as an Order in Council, rather than in the Northern Ireland Assembly as a Bill. Your Lordships are, however, all too aware of the reasoning behind the suspension of devolution—namely, the persistent, deceitful and undemocratic activities of Sinn Fein/IRA, culminating in the discovery of a spy ring operating in Stormont. Until such activities are brought to a definitive end, the responsibility for scrutinising Northern Ireland legislation will continue to lie with this Parliament.

This order is the result of the reinvestment and reform initiative launched last year. This initiative was born out of a realisation that Northern Ireland has suffered from a serious and severe lack of public investment in its basic infrastructure over the past 30 years. Quite rightly, the necessary diversion of public moneys for peacekeeping and security meant that progress on our roads, schools and hospitals could not keep up with investment levels in other regions of the United Kingdom.

The new Northern Ireland Executive estimated that some £14 billion worth of investment was required over the next 10 years. The expected growth rate in capital expenditure within the Northern Ireland budgets is just over £7 billion, leaving a shortfall of £7 billion. From the £14 billion, 70 per cent needs to be spent over the next five to six years, particularly on our ageing water service. Furthermore, significant sums must be spent in the next two years if we are to avoid significant and expensive infraction proceedings emanating from Europe.

Regrettably, the Northern Ireland Executive was unable to secure significant additional resources from the UK Treasury to meet this shortfall. So, in November 2001, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, along with the Prime Minister and Chancellor, established a task force—the reinvestment and reform initiative—to make substantial investment in public assets.

The initiative bestowed a borrowing power on the Northern Ireland Executive to enable it to add significant spending power to departments, ensure the better utilisation of existing and new assets and ensure improvements in the delivery of public services. It also required the granting of significant and strategic redundant military and security installations to the Executive. Indeed, this forms the basis for the regeneration of sites element in the order.

Unfortunately, there has been some reluctance among the departments in Northern Ireland to replicate the beneficial use of public/private partnerships or private finance initiatives to solve investment problems. There is also a tendency for departments to hold on to assets that are no longer central to their principal activities and functions. This has led to stagnation and a lack of projects or investments from public or private sources. For instance, the Department for Regional Development still operates and manages car parks throughout Northern Ireland. Yet that same department has not brought forward a single proposal for the investment, restructuring and refinancing of our water service, despite nearly two and a half years of accountable local government. Such department-based approaches are costly, inefficient and have led to a very poor level of deal flow.

To combat such examples, the strategic investment board was created to develop, implement and drive an integrated strategy on behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive, working from the Programme for Government and adopted by the Assembly as a whole. I hope and trust that this will overcome the shortcomings associated with the existing department-based approach.

I welcome the granting of powers to develop, where appropriate, regeneration companies that will take forward the development of sites of strategic importance. The future development of the Maze prison, the Long Kesh army base and other sites provides the opportunity for alliances to be formed between the community and the voluntary sector, government and the private sector. It will transform areas normally associated with trouble and terror into areas of productivity, economic regeneration and social enhancement.

This order is one of the most important pieces of legislation to come out of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It will significantly improve our infrastructure and bring investment to Northern Ireland on a scale not previously thought possible. I commend the order to the House.

Lord Smith of Clifton

Does the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, agree with me that the composition of the company leaves much to be desired in that it does not involve important social partners? Does he agree that it would be much better for Northern Ireland if such an important agency were to proceed with the assistance and experience of those sectors?

Lord Rogan

I am not aware of what the composition of the board will be. But I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, that it will be to the board's benefit if the greatest number of people throughout the community who can be involved are asked to be.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Fitt

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Smith, has a point when he says that this order would not have been passed if it had come before the Northern Ireland Assembly. Although the order is about regenerating Northern Ireland in every aspect, there are also political considerations. Some of the objections in Northern Ireland are about the disposal of the available military lands. Some would like to see the disposal of those establishments while others would be bitterly opposed to it.

The previous speaker drew my attention to the composition of the board. The order states: The membership of the company's board will be controlled by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister". Currently, the First Minister is a Unionist and the Deputy First Minister is a nationalist. If it is within the power of those two to appoint the board's members, what will that say about the powers of the other elected Assembly Members who do not agree with every aspect of this order? This order is so important to the whole future of Northern Ireland, and I believe that all the political parties should try their best to find an accommodation to which they can all agree.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, said that he tabled an amendment which will be considered tomorrow in the Chamber. As we are all aware, however, those who will take part in tomorrow's debates are currently sitting in this room. Most noble Lords in the Chamber tomorrow will not be overly concerned about what happens in Northern Ireland. If they read some of the accounts of what happened last week in Northern Ireland, I could understand why they do not want to be concerned with Northern Ireland.

If this order is accepted, it will be accepted under the aegis of the presently constituted Assembly. However, there has to be an Assembly election in May, after which the composition may be totally different. The new Assembly may not wish to go along with every aspect of this order. So the question is whether it is urgent to pass this order now. If not, I believe that all shades of opinion in the Northern Ireland Assembly should be taken into account. The most important point, however, is one that I have made. As I said, The membership of the company's board will be controlled by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister". Both are highly political figures in Northern Ireland. If they were to take decisions that could in any way be interpreted as excluding other Assembly Members, it would not bode well for the future of the board.

Viscount Brookeborough

Although very few people are against the idea of the objectives of the order—to increase opportunities, investment and development—we have to consider the principle. The Government have said that they do not want the Assembly's suspension to hold up the government of Northern Ireland and that they want the passage of the legislation which was under consideration or was soon to be considered in the Assembly. However, the Government themselves admit that this order might not have been passed by the Assembly. Although I personally do not oppose the order, there is a principle here.

The Government expressed their hope, which we all share, that the Assembly will soon be restarted. Nevertheless, they expressly said that they would not wait to see whether that happens. They said, "We will continue what the people of Northern Ireland started because we want to show that the Assembly is effective". Still, they have admitted that this order would not have been passed. As I said, however, I am not against the order.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

On a matter of correction, I said that at no time did I admit that it would not have gone through. I said that it was speculation.

Viscount Brookeborough

My apologies.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

I have just one query to put to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal, and that relates to the transfer of the bases. I am ashamed to say that I have not been back to May 2002 and looked at the detail under which the original agreement was made. However, I live within two miles of an RAF base which was surrendered from Ministry of Defence use in 1993. Ten years later, it is still in the Government's hands. I have no criticism of that fact, which involves about £500,000 of expenditure annually. Am I right in assuming that, when the bases are handed over, all potential military damage to them will have been removed so that, although they are brownfield sites, they are free from pollution? If they are not free from pollution, on whom will the expense fall? Will it fall on the Ministry of Defence or on the new owners?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am grateful for the contributions that have been made. I am particularly grateful for the generosity of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, in expressing appreciation for what we tried to do about producing a procedure that is quite novel in this place.

It seems to me that the division of question and criticism has been twofold: one, should we be doing it; and, two, the nature and constitution of the board. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, said that the Assembly is sovereign. Speaking for the Government, we should prefer that the Assembly had never been suspended. It was suspended with great reluctance. Our present hope, as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said time and again, is that we shall have elections on 1st May. However, let us assume that we do not. Are we then to let these opportunities of which the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, spoke so glowingly dribble away? The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is a good one. He spoke of about 10 years that have been wasted or not used fruitfully. I do not think that we will discharge our duty to the people of Northern Ireland if we let these opportunities go. I am very grateful for the support that the noble Lords, Lord Rogan and Lord Glentoran, have given to this.

It is possible that this order would have gone through the Assembly—I do not know, and I do not think that any Member of the Committee could possibly be in a position to know with any degree of moral certainty. What I can say is that all the parties on the Executive—the four major parties—took part in the discussions. It is possible that the Assembly would have passed it, but it is possible that it would not have done. Are we then for the future to say either, "The Assembly might not have passed it", or even, lamentably, "The Assembly never even considered it"? Are we then to do nothing? I think not.

The order has the support of the two biggest political parties, the SDLP and the U UP. All four Executive parties were represented on the project board. The Executive Committee met on a number of occasions to look at the contents of the legislation and the path that it would take. This order itself has been the subject of further consultation between the Minister, Mr Ian Pearson, and the Alliance, the Women's Coalition and the PUP. The Minister has also met the DUP and Sinn Fein. So I think that we have done our very best, and acted as honourably as we can, in taking this matter forward.

A number of Members of the Committee—the noble Lords, Lord Fitt, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough—asked about composition. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Smith, talks about needing to ensure that the board would be a model of social partnership and involve key stakeholders. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, is quite right. The membership of the board has not been set. However, it would be wrong of me not to share the current thinking with the Committee. The current thinking is that there should be one public sector representative, the interim chief executive, the chair of PUK plus three or four other experts who, of course, will be able to take representations from anyone who is interested. Quite careful thought will have to be given to who should be on the board.

The real dilemma is as follows. Should we do nothing at all—against which the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, has counselled—or must we go forward in circumstances which we all recognise are not ideal? The circumstances are not ideal, but it seems to me that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to our going forward with economic regeneration. Let us not forget that the history of economic regeneration—investment and falling unemployment—is a success story of which we should speak more strongly.

On the particular point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, my advice is that we shall ensure that there is no contamination of the sites. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, is quite right. We shall have to examine all the assets. Of course, the new body will have to look at the best possible asset utilisation.

I shall pass on to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State the concerns expressed about the identity of the board. I think it is fair to say that Members of the Committee know him to be an open-minded person who always pays careful attention to those matters.

We are faced with this problem. No one wants to be in a Northern Ireland order Grand Committee—we would rather that the Assembly was doing its work. Absent it doing its work—I must not use the word "absent"; the Prime Minister was criticised for being a lawyer when he used it the other day—without the Northern Ireland Assembly, we must do our very best. I have no doubt that, when it comes to tomorrow, I shall be able to commend to Members of the Committee and others in the Chamber that this ought to go forward.

On Question, Motion agreed to.