HL Deb 20 July 2004 vol 664 cc63-95GC
The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

I beg to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Budget (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.

It is a matter of regret that this legislation is not being considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly, and we all hope that the ongoing review process will lead to a speedy restoration of the devolved institution. However, good government and the provision of public services in Northern Ireland must continue and therefore it falls to Parliament to consider the issue before us today.

The main purpose of the draft order is to authorise the balance of the 2004–05 main estimates, which is in addition to the vote on account that was approved by Parliament in March. The vote on account, amounting to approximately 45 per cent of the total provision for the 2004–05 financial year, enabled funds to continue to flow to public services for the early months of this financial year until the main estimates before us today could be presented and considered.

The balance of the 2004–05 main estimates contained in the order amounts to some £6 billion resources and £5.5 billion cash. When added to the vote on account, it will take the total amount authorised for 2004–05 to £11.3 billion resources and £9.9 billion cash. This reflects the outcome of the 2003 priorities and budget process announced by my honourable friend in another place on 13 January 2004.

That outcome evolves through a process involving widespread consultation with a range of local organisations including city and district councils, voluntary and community organisations, the business community and trade unions. In addition, as part of the consultation process, my honourable friend met with the main Northern Ireland political parties.

I can therefore assure your Lordships that the spending plans before us today reflect the priorities of the local community in Northern Ireland. The order also seeks to authorise the excess resource amount in both the 2001–02 and 2002–03 financial years. The matters have been the subject of consideration and of subsequent report by the Public Accounts Committee. The report which was published on 25 May 2004 recommended that the excesses should be authorised by Parliament by means of excess votes.

Considerable detail regarding the sums sought is set out in the documents supporting the 2004–05 main estimates and the statement of excess for 2001–02 and for 2002–03. Copies of these supporting documents have been placed in the Library of the House.

The introduction within each estimate provides a brief description of the nature of expenditure covered by the estimate, while the Part II subhead detail provides a breakdown of the proposed expenditure by functional area, with the associated cash requirement for the whole estimate. Comparative figures for the 2002–03 and 2003–04 financial years are also provided at Part II. I commend the order.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Budget (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.—(Baroness Amos.)

Lord Glentoran

I am the first to admit my ignorance of the details of public accounting, and I shall leave that matter to others more expert than myself this afternoon. However, there are a number of issues to which I suggest Members of the Committee should pay attention when we discuss the draft Northern Ireland budget for the six-month period and onwards—for the second time in the year.

It is the duty of government to deliver competent and efficient administration to the part of the country or the nation for which it is responsible. This Government have been responsible for the administration of Northern Ireland for seven—approaching eight—years, I regret to say. They have had a number of complicated issues to face, over many of which we have been in agreement and support. However, we have now been without Stormont and the Assembly for nearly two years—and I agree with the Minister when she regrets that. I regret it very much and believe that the situation would be very much more satisfactory were it to be being discussed by the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont. However, there is a duty of care on the Government.

It is right to note, as my honourable friend David Lidington pointed out in another place, that the Auditor General for Northern Ireland indicates that the, quality of government services in Northern Ireland too often lets down the people who are using them and who are paying for them through their taxes". The system of public administration in Northern Ireland was described as, disastrously fragmented. Almost every body in GB that carries out any function of government is duplicated on a tiny scale within Northern Ireland and that is an impediment to clarity and an enormous inefficiency".—[Official Report, Commons, Northern Ireland Grand Committee, 8/7/04; col. 009.] On a Starred Question from the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, not long ago, I supported him and challenged the Government on this issue of wasted money. I believe that the Government are now guilty to a considerable extent of maladministration in terms of waste of public money in many different areas. Northern Ireland is grossly over-administered.

The Government referred some time ago to a review of public administration, which was to set out plans to reduce the amount of administration in Northern Ireland—hence, the costs—to increase responsibilities on local authorities and to reduce the layers of government. If I am right, that was nearly two years ago, and we have still heard nothing from the Government on the matter.

Furthermore, we have had the situation of absenteeism, which has now grown disastrously in the Civil Service in Northern Ireland. I believe that the cost of absenteeism in 2002–03 was £39 million of public money. Would the Minister at some stage tell me what the costs for 2003–04 are and whether anything has improved? I would also like to know where the reform of public administration has got to.

Another major issue affects this budget, on which I should also like answers—that is, the NIPSA strike. The civil servants or any other employees normally go on strike only as a last resort. Having spent 30 years of my life in the manufacturing industry and having started on the shop floor and worked up through not the union but similar movements, I know the effect of poor leadership and low morale on the workforce. It leads to frustration and to wanting some way out and some form of recourse.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service is in that situation, which is why we have the strike today. As I understand it, it is not getting any better; it is spreading and getting worse. Later today, we have an order regarding vehicle testing, which is bound to affect the overall budgets and finances of the Northern Ireland economy. We are an exporter. There are large hauliers hauling goods across Europe and bringing them back. Even if this order is accepted, it will cause huge difficulties on the continent if those hauliers are stopped regarding their necessary documentation. I wonder how many of the officials in France and Germany will understand about an order passed today. That is the situation only for the hauliers.

We also have the farming community, which has suffered enough in the past few years. I declare an interest here: I have a farm with tenant farmers who are dependent on the grants that they are not being paid. At the end of June, the agricultural industry and the farmers were owed £20 million. This weekend's Northern Ireland newspapers led me to understand that farmers are extending their borrowings with the banks, which is costing them more interest. Will the Government underwrite that interest and those loans? What recourse will the farmers have on account of the money that they will lose as a result of this strike?

Finally, I do not wish to quip, but I could, about the efficiencies in the planning authority, which is also going on strike as of this week. That will affect the whole of the construction industry. It will affect future housing, future roads, future construction plans and a large amount of the cash flow and turnover in the Northern Ireland economy.

I am making a case today that the administration of Northern Ireland is far less than satisfactory. Once upon a time we had a health service of which we were very proud. Now, our health service is probably as poor as anywhere in this country with seriously ill people waiting to get beds, hanging about on trolleys in hospitals that are dirty and maladministered. We had an education system of which we were proud. Will the noble Baroness the Lord President give me an undertaking that she will not continue the move on the education system for the sake of some Labour Party dogma?

At this stage of the debate on the Northern Ireland budget, I put to noble Lords that the Government are doing a poor job, have done a poor that is getting worse and the effects of maladministration, which have now spread into a serious strike within the Northern Ireland Civil Service, will affect a very fragile economy very seriously.

Lord Smith of Clifton

In considering this budget order it necessary to put it in its context. In so doing, I shall echo some of the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. The condition of public finance in Northern Ireland is a cause for concern, while the infrastructure of the state apparatus is, in some respects, bloated, unwieldy and not fit for purpose. By contrast, since the Belfast agreement the private sector has seen a buoyant revival.

Compared with a decade ago, the city of Belfast has been transformed beyond recognition. If that economic development is to be sustained and further progressed, it requires to be complemented with a modernised government machine. In that regard, things have changed little in the past 10 years and in some respects may even have deteriorated.

When I moved to Northern Ireland in 1991, it was essentially a public-sector economy and society. I described it as more collectivist than Stalinist Russia, more corporatist than Mussolini's Italy and more quangoised than the Britain of the two Harolds. Apart from the welcome resurgence of a prosperous private sector, little has altered in the mean time.

For example, as this budget order shows, there is a massive underspend of some £400 million of which £220 million is for capital projects. A supercharged investment board was created a year ago to offer strategic guidance in that vital area. What has it been doing all year?

Another symptom of the bureaucratic malaise that infects government in Northern Ireland is seen in the recent Northern Ireland Audit Office report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, alluded. It was a report on the excessive and growing recourse by government to commissioning outside consultants. The report identified an increase in expenditure from £10 million to £18.6 million during the past five years—a rise of about 80 per cent. However, that seriously underestimates the situation, which is itself a grave cause for concern.

As my noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland pointed out, the report presented a very incomplete picture. He said: If one tries to piece together some of the evidence one cannot actually get to the actual expenditure on consultants". By way of illustration, my noble friend said: In 2001–02, it was certainly in excess of £34 million … but the worst element of all in this is that in 88 of the 100 cases studied in this report, there has been no proper evaluation about whether there was any benefit in these consultants being hired".—[official Report, 8/7/04; col. 915.] Thus, a double cause of concern is revealed by that NIAO report. On the one hand, it points to excessive reliance on outside consultants, poor procurement and a cavalier disregard for the DFP's guidance; while on the other, it shows up the inadequacy of the NAIO itself in being unable to come up with a comprehensive analysis of the full extent of the employment of consultants. Who will audit the auditors?

Why are highly paid civil servants fearful of taking decisions that they are paid to take without calling in consultants to cover their backs? How has that lamentable state of affairs been allowed to come about? Has there been any attempt in Northern Ireland to undertake a Gershon-type efficiency saving exercise in the Civil Service, as there has in Great Britain?

Northern Ireland, with 1.7 million people, is roughly the size of one and a half English counties, yet that budget far exceeds anything comparable in England and Wales. That is partly be due to the working of the Barnett formula, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, himself has repeatedly pointed out, is long past its shelf life and needs urgent reform. After all, happily, Northern Ireland is no longer the poorest region in the UK.

Secondly, the cost of security is disproportionately high for readily apparent reasons. However, even allowing for that, there can be no doubt that government costs are far too high. In that regard, I note that the costs of the moribund Assembly are estimated to rise from £33.7 million to £47.2 million per annum in the coming year. We hope that the Assembly will be restored in the autumn, because devolution should ultimately bring down the size of the budget. Initially, and not least because of the necessity to create no less than 11 government departments to accommodate the d'Hondt formula for the allocation of ministerial portfolios, devolution increased costs. In the longer run, however, I believe that, as local Ministers have to make hard choices between competing demands and have perforce to prioritise public expenditure, costs will fall.

Under direct rule, Northern Ireland politicians of all shades, both here in Westminster and locally, are just part of the claimant culture to which, in its turn, the Civil Service and its mode of operation respond. It is an unhealthy situation, with totally inadequate political scrutiny and public accountability. Let us restore the devolved institutions and slim the budget and the bureaucracy.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

Many Members of the Committee will recall that on 8 July, when the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, intervened on the Question of my noble friend Lord Smith about consultants, he gave us a sample of the literature that he had been receiving. Although I have taken the lectern, the sample, I have brought would have sufficed.

I do not complain about getting the literature because it proves to us what we are lacking with the Assembly not functioning. As we open the post day by day, all these letters from various departments in Northern Ireland are a steady reminder to us that the Assembly is not functioning and that it ought to be. Reference has been made to the possibility of a resumption in the autumn. If there is no resurrection of the Assembly in the autumn, I do not think that we can carry on scrutinising like this. I have been trying to scratch about as best I can and it is very difficult. There is a democratic deficit. The Minister has told us about the consultation that has taken place to put this budget together. But I cannot measure the quality of that consultation. I am sure that it is there but I cannot measure its depth and quality. If we are to be back again, we will have to find other ways of doing this.

For a start, I find this document very difficult to fathom. I set about it by looking at the Barnett formula and seeing where that takes us in terms of the numbers because I cannot prove that it works. I cannot prove that what is in the document and what the Barnett formula produces match. I am not clear about what is paid for by UK taxpayers as a whole and is not covered under the devolved budget. I do not know how that fits with the Barnett formula. I also do not know how supplements from the European Union fit in. They are, to use the term, additionality. I cannot see how the big picture fits with what I see in this book. Indeed, in the book it is difficult to fathom what is different from A to B and occasionally C. It is designed to confuse. I would like to think that the starting point, the fundamentals, were clearer.

When I spoke in March, I referred to an area that I know a little bit about, Northern Ireland railways. I said to myself, "That's enough of that, pick something else to look at next time. See if you can get to something else in depth". But I regret to say that I must return to the railways because I referred then to a debate that appeared to be going on in Northern Ireland about the non-core railway, which was Whitehead to Larne and Ballymena and Londonderry.

What I did not know then was that a book was to be produced by the Railways Review Group A Position Report on the Future Investment Needs of Northern Ireland Railways. It is the least glossy of any of the documents that have come out of Northern Ireland. It is only 30 pages. However, page 30 refers one to a consultants report, which is obtainable at www.translink.co.uk—and all sorts of other things. That gives one another 220 pages from Booz Allen Hamilton. I have that in my paperwork here. Amazingly, there has also been a report on the railways in the Republic of Ireland by Booz Allen Hamilton. That report was over 400 pages. So there are well over 600 pages of consultants' report on the railways of Ireland.

Sadly, however, this modest 30-pager talks of the closure of railway lines in Northern Ireland and yet—this must be true because I read it in the consultants' report—Londonderry is the fourth city of Ireland. The railway line we are talking about would connect the second city of Ireland with its fourth city.

Looking at the report produced by the same consultants in the Republic, they talk about a feasibility study to look into the possibility of extending the railway from Londonderry to Letterkenny, which would be a costly venture. The consultants say that they have consulted with DETR Northern Ireland and Translink NIR, which suggests support. Yet those same folk are putting out these closure proposals. That is not joined-up government in any shape or form. It is time, as a piece of detail, for acts to be got together and acknowledge that the best option would be to return both of these railway lines. Indeed, the capital costs would be a mere fraction of what is to be carried forward in budget expenditure from last year to this. As I have said, that is an important piece of detail.

I know that some people are not too happy about cross-border bodies, but it is quite interesting to note, in terms of dual economy, that when we have Waterways Ireland, quite frankly it would make incredibly good sense to have "railways Ireland" as well. We should bear it in mind that the rail network in Northern Ireland is much smaller than that in the Republic, but they have so much in common when compared with anything in England, Scotland and Wales.

I want to talk next about European money. Several references are made to European funds from the various agencies throughout Europe in the budget document. What I cannot fathom is the approach to reconciliation. The last page of the yellow section of the book refers to the income coming from Europe in respect of the various funds while expenditure is set out on the red pages. It is impossible to reconcile the two figures, although that may well be quite proper given the timing differences. But no attempt has been made to reconcile that. I cannot prove that the European moneys received will match the moneys paid out.

Several fortunate areas of European funding have grown out of the misfortune of Northern Ireland such as, for example, the Peace II EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation moneys. Much of that is spent on those people desperately searching for peace, many of them involved in voluntary and local community groups. Amazingly, peace money is also used to buy double decker buses in Belfast, but we shall let that pass by as one of those strange things that happens in government. I should have thought that the genuine expenditure of peace and reconciliation moneys is all about peace and reconciliation. However, I am worried about how the micro-economy that has built up over recent years will cope if, as a result of the addition of poorer states to the European Union, it is not possible to fund it in the same way. Questions arise over whether the peace and reconciliation funding programme will be slimmed down. There are concerns about that.

On any basis, the figure of £11,783 million is a large sum. I am concerned about best use of money. My noble friend Lord Smith has spoken about the various organisations in Northern Ireland, whose acronyms are NIA, NIB, NEC, NID, NIE, NIF, and so on, with the list going round several times because there are so many. Does every such outfit have human relations consultants, treasurers and staff to produce glossy books? Is there no possibility of economising on these establishment costs?

Perhaps we should consider benchmarking. The three largest counties in England are Essex, Kent and Hampshire, each with a population of around 1.2 or 1.3 million. The combined population of the neighbouring counties of Hampshire and Dorset is similar to that of Northern Ireland. The population of Hampshire and Dorset is around 1.63 million while that of Northern Ireland is around 1.69 million. The education budget for Hampshire and Dorset is £803 million while Northern Ireland's is £1,300 million. Of course, if a devolved government want to spend more money on education, they can, but I still wonder how those figures can be matched.

Lord Kilclooney

Has the noble Lord looked at the difference in birth rates?

Lord Shutt of Greetland

I have not; I have looked only at the populations. Perhaps one can look at the figures in all sorts of ways. I accept that the comparison is totally imprecise. For example, the education budget of Northern Ireland includes libraries, but that constitutes quite a small proportion—around 4 per cent of each school's budget. Even deducting the budget for libraries, there is a huge difference. Perhaps it will be possible to look at the numbers and reduce the difference, but I guess that the figure for Northern Ireland will still be substantially higher, and that may be right. But I want to know whether such matters are looked at.

We are all concerned about due economy. Regardless of that, post enlargement there might be less European money. We should be looking at opportunities to reduce expenditure in Northern Ireland, because an absence of European money would result in the collapse of certain areas of the Northern Ireland economy, particularly those paid for under the European Union Peace and Reconciliation Programme. Although the Assembly is in suspension, it is important that the matter is looked at carefully. By looking at some of the ways in which Northern Ireland is operated, with a view to sharing costs of producing glossy books, accountancy and treasury posts and clerkships of organisations, there could be due economy and money could be released to enable frontline work and essential voluntary and community work to continue.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I agree almost entirely with what has been said already. Pending the possible reconstruction of the governance—not government—of Northern Ireland, a reduction in the vast number of departments and the thinning out of the number of curious bodies already referred to, which seem to be without visible means of support, we will remain in financial trouble. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has highlighted much of the wasteful expenditure. Unfortunately, the lack of clarity will be noted by other regions of the United Kingdom, which will cast envious glances across the Irish Sea and wonder how we have got away with it for so long. The inevitable result will be that Her Majesty's Treasury will start to pay heed to this drain on UK resources. We must be careful.

I am not critical of civil servants as a body. They are bound to suffer from what I can only call the sheer stupidity and silliness of others. I implore Her Majesty's Government to institute a sound administrative structure for Northern Ireland on the grounds voted upon in 1979 by 14.5 million United Kingdom citizens. When some of us were bold enough to inquire why the structure was not proceeded with, the answer was, "Because, Jim dear, it was not enough". Perhaps it was not enough and the United Kingdom electorate's appetite for constitutional government was not satisfied, but they should remember—they probably now remember in hindsight—that the alternative to "not enough" was bound to be nothing, which is precisely what we have now. We will continue to have nothing until we stop playing games that are designed mainly—I have to say, perhaps uncharitably—to keep the news industry happy. We must have summits, get-togethers, departmental heads and so forth, yet it all amounts to nothing. It is a con job, as the news industry knows well, although it exploits it and uses the fodder handed out to them—who can blame them?

I implore Her Majesty's Government. They have exhibited a good deal of realism in their thinking on various other national and international policies. Surely, it is not asking too much for them to look again at what was voted upon by the United Kingdom electorate in 1979 but rejected because it did not go far enough, with the inevitable result that we got nothing.

Lord Hylton

I wish to raise an issue that affects all departments of government, whether those devolved in theory or those that have never been devolved. I refer to the continue existence of paramilitary groups, both those on ceasefire and those not so. I suggest that it is necessary and most desirable to have the maximum possible amount of exits and ways of leaving violence and terrorism which are open, available and can be used by those who want to do so. In brief, the object should be to deter the current rank and file of paramilitary groups and former offenders from moving into crime, as many already have done, and instead to help them in the direction of normal civilian employment.

For some, perhaps only a tiny minority, emigration may provide a solution. For others there is the public sector, which is, after all, a very large employer in Northern Ireland, the commercial sector and numerous voluntary organisations and community associations. What are the Government doing about those possible lines of exit? Are incentives of any kind being provided for those who want to cease a life of violence? In general, what is the Government's policy and future intention?

I wish to refer to integrated education, partly because the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council, in an Answer to a Written Question last month, told me that procedures are in place for transforming existing schools to integrated status. That in itself is good news, but have those procedures been used in recent years and what is the prospect of their being used more in the next year or two, given that there is strong parental demand for more schools providing integrated education? In view of the reducing, and already lower, numbers of pupils in secondary schools, some existing ones are functioning at about half-capacity. That surely gives scope for some move into an integrated mode. I look forward to the Government's response.

Lord Laird

I can identify with much of what has been said, but I wish to raise a number of issues. Further to the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith, I wish to draw attention to the fact that we have a Civic Forum in Northern Ireland, which was suspended along with the Assembly. Expenditure on the Civic Forum in the current year was £176,000 compared to £328,000 in 2002–03. Estimates suggest that expenditure for 2004–05 will increase to over £0.5 million. One wonders how the costs of a body that is still suspended can increase threefold. It is a waste of money. When do the Government propose to disband the Civic Forum?

The Government have said that they will refurbish or rebuild every secondary school in England and Wales to 21st century standards in the next 10 to 15 years. Will the Government confirm that they have the same plans for Northern Ireland schools, and if not, why? Will all mobile classrooms in Northern Ireland be replaced? If so, can the Government spell out exactly how they intend to do so? In my view, the only way to reform the schooling system is through public-private partnerships. What plans do the Government have to do that in Northern Ireland?

The Government have completely ignored the Ulster Unionist Party's objections to the Costello report, which we consider flawed, and the result of a widespread consultation exercise in Northern Ireland considering post-primary reforms. Why are the Government determined to implement Costello when all sections of society in Northern Ireland have indicated how ill suited it is? Grammar schools are not simply opposed to any change, as the Government claim. Representatives of grammar schools have been actively engaged in proposing workable changes as alternatives to the 11-plus, something that the Government have not managed to do in detail. What specifically are the Government's alternatives? What sort of system will emerge from the proposals? What will be the admissions criteria under the new system?

The problem of capping student numbers in Northern Ireland remains. Why is the cap unique to Northern Ireland? Will the Government tell us whether there is any financial reason why we cannot increase opportunities for participation? When will the Government end what I believe is a form of discrimination?

I move on to a topic dealt with extremely well by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland: the problem of the funding of the railways. I am not sure that we want to be the only part of Europe where railways may be closed down. In every other part of Europe, railways are seen as part of the solution. They are being revamped and much capital funding has been going into them. I do not understand why little money has been spent on the non-core system—the system that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, described. I cannot understand why there is such haste for the consultation on the document that the noble Lord discussed. I cannot understand why, despite a lot of prompting, no one has come up with a concept to promote, especially, the section of line from Coleraine to Londonderry, as a tourist attraction. I also cannot understand why, when we are on the verge of getting many millions of pounds worth of railway stock in Northern Ireland, closing the non-core section of the network is being considered before the stock has even had a chance to show what it can do on the railway system.

On support for individuals with educational difficulties, I have supplied some information to the noble Baroness concerning a gentleman whose case I have raised before in this place, Owen Waide, a boy who suffers from Asperger's syndrome. A satisfactory solution was found to his problem that allowed him to become part of society, but the South Eastern Education and Library Board has cut funding for that young boy and his parents, who are now back to square one. Obviously, I do not expect the Minister to have an answer to an individual case, but I have supplied her with the information and look forward to hearing her answer to that in due course.

I raise an issue about which I feel strongly and have a fair bit of experience. That is the budget of the cross-border language body. The particular part of it in which I am interested, and of which I was chairman for four and a half years, is the Ulster Scots Agency. The Government's understanding of its priorities is haywire and more in the realm of Alice in Wonderland than of reality.

For 2004, the desired budget for the Ulster-Scots Agency had £600,000 removed from it that was specifically aimed at continuing a very successful policy of the agency in 2003. I want to be quite specific: it was removed without consultation, discussion or agreement. When I requested the minutes of meetings that the department says took place to discuss the matter, they were not available to me. Therefore, I can only conclude that there was no discussion; I know for a fact that there was no discussion.

Our policy, which is one in which I think that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, will be interested, was of replacing old-style murals depicting hooded gunmen and paramilitary imagery with murals celebrating historic themes such as scenes from the Great War and Ulster Scots language, culture and history. It was for the consignment of paramilitary flags to the past. It was for the organisation of family-friendly events on 11 July night, such as those organised by Mid-Armagh Community Network and the Schomburg Society of Kilkeel.

It was for the provision of help, advice and financial support to those community leaders who want to effect positive change in their localities. It made funding available to pull the carpet from under the feet of those unsympathetic to change, by depriving them of one of their major arguments for maintaining the status quo. It was for the creation of new opportunities for Protestant and Unionist communities to explain and share their culture to and with their Roman Catholic and nationalist neighbours.

I cannot understand what is so wrong with that policy that it did not even warrant discussion or any form of agreement with us. We were never asked about the policy. The Ulster-Scots Agency successfully implemented the policy during 2003 but had to stop it this year because of lack of funding, the money being taken out. It seems to me that Her Majesty's Government are happy to pay police overtime and make compensation payments, but not to pay £600,000 to the Ulster-Scots Agency, which, if it does not have the solution to the problem, at least has a solution. No one has told me any other solution to the problem of trying to put the society of Northern Ireland back on the rails, to deal with the paramilitaries and to try to take people out of their spheres of influence. Until someone tells me what is wrong with the Ulster-Scots Agency policy and gives me a better one. I think this is a disgrace.

But the same department that looked after the activities of the language body also looks after Waterways Ireland. Waterways Ireland had a 40 per cent increase in its budget for 2004. It has never been able to spend its entire funding in any year to date and, as I understand it, has replaced as much as £7 million in the central kitty. Yet it has had an increase of 40 per cent while we were deprived of a minute amount of money that would meet a social need in our Province.

cannot understand the decision-making process. Some people with a cultural view of Ulster-Scots activities went to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and asked to borrow £100,000 for Ulster-Scots culture. After 11 months, a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and requests for rewrites, the request was turned down. I have here an Answer by the Minister to a Written Question on 14 June this year. It refers to funding for the West Belfast Festival, of which I am supportive. I have no difficulty with the festival being funded; it is not money lent, it is funding. The festival organisers submitted a request for over £100,000 on 15 August 2003. What day was the request granted? On the very same day. Yet we asked for £100,000 as a loan for Ulster-Scots culture and after 11 months it was turned down.

What conclusion can we come to, except that the Ulster-Scots culture is not wanted on the island of Ireland? Things are slightly worse now. The North-South Ministerial Council, which has a specific remit, has been in discussions with both loyalist and republican paramilitaries. It has provided funding for an image consultant to provide a new image for Protestant paramilitary groups. I am not desperately opposed to that but this is the same organisation that presided over £600,000 being taken out of our budget, which stopped us doing socially acceptable activities during 2004. Yet it has been organising and spending resources on promoting and helping loyalist and republican paramilitary groups, including the provision of an image consultant.

I have no doubt that the answer will be that this help is provided to the bank account that is run by the Government of the Republic of Ireland. But meetings are attended by officials of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. What remit has the Northern Ireland joint-secretary to the North-South Ministerial Council to exceed his authority and to talk to Protestant paramilitaries or to any paramilitary group? What remit has he to exceed his authority with regard to the North-South Ministerial Council, or was he acting on behalf of the North-South Ministerial Council? It is time that we had a total review, an inquiry, into exactly how these cross-border bodies have been funded and how they are totally unfair, simply interested in one side of the community and not the other.

I am not opposed to cross-border co-operation and I have discussed the matter with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, on a number of occasions. I would support much of what he said. However, if there are going to be cross-border bodies, let them not be these bodies. Let them be bodies that are there on the basis of equity, fairness and providing funding and support on the basis of all-round need, not simply skewed to the request of the Irish Government.

Lord Glentoran

Perhaps I may come back, having listened to other noble Lords. I did not want to leave your Lordships with the impression that I was in any way being specifically critical of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. I was not. I was being critical of the way in which the Northern Ireland Civil Service has been managed by the Government.

We have always had a Civil Service in Northern Ireland of which we have been proud and I am sure we still have that. I wanted that to be on the record.

Lord Kilclooney

I had not intended to speak, but I found some of the comments depressing. As a one-time Minister, I have great sympathy for the noble Baroness today. She has to cover subject, after subject, after subject, the detail of which it would be difficult for her to understand. It is at present one of the most difficult portfolios to hold, particularly because of the way in which this budget is discussed in Parliament.

There has been criticism of the Orders in Council, which is right, and there has of course been the confirmation that we have no Assembly in Northern Ireland due to the political situation within the Province. The process, for which the Minister is now responsible and must reply to, must be brought to an end. It is inadequate and unsatisfactory for everyone.

Therefore, we look towards September, the possible resolution of the political divisions in Northern Ireland and the return of democracy to Stormont. At the moment, that does not look hopeful. The people have voted for parties of the extremes and the likelihood of an agreement emerging in September is, in my opinion, unlikely.

That being the case, we cannot continue with a suspended Assembly. One of the items in the budget is, of course, continued payments to Assembly Members and to their staff. I have defended them on previous occasions, but they have been made for the past two years. They are indefensible in future. If there is not agreement on an Assembly at Stormont, we must face up to the reality that devolution and the Belfast agreement have failed and that Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom will have to be governed from here in London on a more democratic basis, where the elected representatives are answerable for the decisions taken in Northern Ireland.

There are hundreds of issues in the order, so the Minister cannot be expected to know them all. One of the more important is the reform of the rating system in Northern Ireland. I have spoken on the matter previously, and pointed out that Northern Ireland is in competition with southern Ireland to attract inward investment. Southern Ireland has always had, and still has, the advantage of a low corporation tax—10 per cent. In Northern Ireland, although we had the high UK corporation tax, none the less, it was possible to point out to inward investors that we had derating for industrial premises.

But now what have we? We have the Government saying, "We are going to introduce rates for industrial premises. We are going to introduce rates for empty commercial and retail outlets". Incidentally, that move will deflate the property market in Northern Ireland as empty premises will now be sold rather than waiting for a potential tenant. So we are going to damage commercial property values in Northern Ireland and, at the same time, damage industrial investment.

4.30 p.m.

The Government have said, "While we introduce rates for industrial premises, at the same time we will initiate a reduction electricity prices for Northern Ireland". But recently the European Union, as it so often does, has rejected this initiative on the part of the Government. Thus the advantage of reduced electricity prices to balance the disadvantage of rates on industrial premises has now been lost. That being the case, since the Government's argument has now been undermined by the decision taken in Europe, I would suggest to Her Majesty's Government that this matter should be reviewed before any final decision is taken. If Northern Ireland is to be put at a disadvantage in comparison with southern Ireland—not only on the issue of corporation tax, but also on energy prices and rates—then that is bad news for the economy of Northern Ireland.

Having said that, I am not one of those who criticises the Government about everything in Northern Ireland, although there has been a lot of criticism today. Rather, I have to say that Northern Ireland is a wonderful place, even under the present Government. Things are going well. The population is increasing. I mentioned earlier the birth rate—we are now 1.7 million. Our unemployment is falling and our employment is increasing. Tourism is prospering and house prices are soaring. There is good news from Northern Ireland as well, so let us in Northern Ireland not always be seen to be complaining and bellyaching.

Why is the population increasing? It is doing so because young people who left Northern Ireland during the 30 years of the Troubles are now coming back. In addition—although the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, may be shocked by this—many English people are coming to live in Northern Ireland, saying that the quality of life is far better than that to be found in many other parts of the United Kingdom. I can cite many examples of that in my own constituency because, as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I happen to be one of the rare species who is an elected representative in the House of Lords. In the constituency of Strangford, the census records that around 8 per cent of the population was born in Great Britain, not in Northern Ireland.

One or two other issues have been mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, spoke of the cost of education. He was quite right to point out that the cost of education per head of the population of Northern Ireland is much higher than it is in England. I cite the higher birth rate as one reason for that. We have more children per family than is the case in England. But there are other burdens, one of which is supported by the noble Lord; that is, that we have different systems of education. We are financing three systems of education in Northern Ireland, not one. We finance the state system, the Roman Catholic system and, increasingly, we are financing the costly integrated system. The result of all that is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, pointed out, we now have schools which do not have sufficient pupils. That is because in each town we are sharing them out between different schools.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

Does the noble Lord agree that, because depopulation in some areas has resulted in insufficient pupils to support two forms of education, it presents a wonderful opportunity for another form of integrated education? In that way a small village can have at least one viable school rather than two non-viable schools.

Lord Kilclooney

That is not practical in Northern Ireland. We have been through this throughout the history of Northern Ireland. The Roman Catholic Church requires its own education system and Unionist governments from 1921 onwards have supported that. The notion that that should be in some way removed and replaced with an integrated system is a political path which I will not go down.

Baroness Blood

What the noble Lord is saying is completely false. We have seven new schools coming through this year, two of which are transformed schools. We cannot keep up with the demand for integrated education. In small villages Protestant and Catholic schools are dying on their feet, so they come to us and ask for an integrated system.

The noble Lord referred to the fact that the British Government now support this move. They are supporting it after we sustained it for three years. We have had to prove the credibility of integrated education before it received government funding.

Lord Kilclooney

That is partly correct.

Baroness Blood

It is not partly correct, it is correct.

Lord Kilclooney

No, that is only partly correct. I know the situation in the different towns in Northern Ireland, and we are beginning to finance three systems. I am correct in saying that, not incorrect. Those three systems are the state system, the Roman Catholic system and now an integrated system. The Government are supporting all three. That means that three types of schools are competing for children in each town and each village. In smaller villages, there is no way in which there can be three schools. It was bad enough having two. In England, there would be only one, and it would be a viable unit.

At the moment, it is not practical politics to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church should in some way close down its schools. That will remain a separate system in Northern Ireland, and I caution anyone to suggest that we should take on the Church to close down its school system in Northern Ireland.

On the question of roads, I must compliment the Government on the new bypasses that have been built in places such as Newtonstewart, Strabane and Omagh. However, I suggest that some thought be given to provision in Cookstown, which is one of the worst towns to get through when travelling to the west of the Province. I see many Members of the Committee nodding their heads in agreement. That requires priority attention, but it does not seem to be mentioned very often. Likewise, the road from Ballymena to Coleraine needs attention. We hear so much about the roads to Newry or Dublin, but the road to Larne, for example, carries twice as many cars as the road to Dublin. Why should the road to Dublin get priority from the noble Lord, Lord Shutt? That priority should be given to the road to Larne, which carries 16,000 vehicles per day. The Roads Service needs to give more thought to the road from Ballymena to Coleraine, and to a bypass at Cookstown.

I support the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, on the issue of railways. He mentioned something of which I was not aware and was interested to hear: that the same consultants were employed by both the southern Irish regime and the Northern Ireland Office. Interestingly, as a result of the southern Ireland part of it, the railway system is going to be expanded, whereas we in Northern Ireland are considering curtailing it. I hope that further thought will be given to the matter. The railway system from Ballymena up to Coleraine and Londonderry is vital for the second city in Northern Ireland. As road traffic increases, it is important that we have the alternative of the railway system, and I hope that no decision will be made to close that particular railway line.

I want to see some savings in the budget. In particular, I suggest that the Civic Forum should be done away with immediately—not pending some future reorganisation of public services or government in Northern Ireland. The Civic Forum has been an absolute disaster and a total waste of money, and it is astounding that while it is suspended it is going to cost us more in the forthcoming year. That is ridiculous. It is simply a talking shop and served no purpose whatever, even when the Assembly was in session.

Another move that could save money—the cost of a bypass somewhere, or £4 million to £5 million a year—would be the removal of the area health and social service councils, which serve no purpose whatever in Northern Ireland. We already have area health boards, and we do not need the social service councils.

Planning is important. The NIPSA strike has been mentioned. That is a serious matter. Planning is bad enough in Northern Ireland without having a strike. People who are investing and coming into Northern Ireland will tell you that planning decisions take much longer in Northern Ireland than they do for similar projects in Great Britain. Retail outlets are horrified at the time it takes to invest in Northern Ireland, due to the delays in the planning system, which lacks resources.

Recently I saw a case of a planning application in Armagh city to convert a room into an office. It was accepted in February, but six months later no decision has been made because of lack of resources. Now it may not be made for another few months, if there is going to be a strike. So there needs to be further investment in the planning service in Northern Ireland.

One project that is coming to some parts of Ireland is the Ikea store. It has difficulties in going to the Republic of Ireland because there is a restriction on the size of stores there. It could come to Northern Ireland if we had a proactive planning service in Northern Ireland and a proactive approach by the Government. The Government's attitude is that they do not want to speak to Ikea because they do not support stores. However, there are different ways and means in which to encourage a store of that nature. People go in their hundreds and perhaps their thousands from Northern Ireland to Scotland to go to the Ikea store. It would be a very popular store to have in the island of Ireland—and one hopes in Northern Ireland. But that requires the Government to show an interest and not just sit back and take no action.

Finally, I conclude on European Union money and the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and others. The noble Lord said that he could not understand how much money was coming from Europe and how much was being spent in Northern Ireland. However, he failed to ask the third vital question—how much in the first instance Northern Ireland is sending to European Union, before the EU sends money back and before we then spend it. The bad news is that we send more to the European Union than we get back.

Lord Dubs

I should like to make a few brief comments. However, before I do, I should like to respond to a few things that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said.

Noble Lords


Lord Dubs

I do apologise, but I have known the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, a long time and old habits die hard.

The noble Lord said that it would be a shock to me to know that the population was expanding in Northern Ireland and that people from England were moving there. Not at all. Northern Ireland is a wonderful place and I am not at all surprised that people want to live there, now that the environment is more peaceful—although not peaceful enough—and with the economy doing well. Equally, I understand about living standards there. Other costs are lower, certainly than in the south-east of England, people's disposable income is higher and therefore their living standards are higher. That does not shock me at all.

The noble Lord referred to integrated education. He said that there were three different systems of schools and that he could not support them. First, every integrated school in Northern Ireland is full, and I understand that most are heavily oversubscribed. There is not a single integrated school in the history of Northern Ireland that has ever failed; they are incredibly successful and parents want them. I should have thought that it was right, in a democratic society, that when parents wanted the choice of a particular form of school for their children, that approach should be supported fully by the Government.

Some of us in the All-Party Group on Integrated Education in Northern Ireland had a meeting with an Education Minister recently and put those various points to him. Although there is progress on integrated education, it is not moving as quickly as some of us would wish. But I dissent from the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, when he talked about integrated schools being a burden. Indeed, they are not a burden but economically successful because they are full and over subscribed. If other schools are less popular, that is not an argument for denying parents the choice of an integrated school.

Lord Kilclooney

I must explain, because I believe that there has been a misunderstanding. I did not say that those schools were a burden; I said that the Government in Northern Ireland has to finance three systems of education there—the state system, the integrated system and the Roman Catholic system, whereas in England there is only the one system. I never used the word "burden". I am saying that we have to finance more than they have to in England, which is the simple explanation why education costs are so much higher in Northern Ireland than they are in England.

Lord Dubs

I understand what the noble Lord is saying, although I should have thought that the reason why education costs are higher in Northern Ireland could only very slightly be attributed to integrated education. If one considers the benefits of integrated education, on which we should not spend too much time in a debate on the budget, I would say that the benefit to the society of Northern Ireland was out of all proportion to the costs of integrated schools.

One further point about integrated education is that the Government are paying for teacher training. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom in which teacher training is segregated on grounds of religion—not on a tripartite system, but with a Catholic teacher training establishment and a Protestant one.

Lord Smith of Clifton

That is not quite true. Teacher training in the University of Ulster, over which I have the honour to preside, is integrated.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Dubs

That is welcome. However, with the exception of the example given by the noble Lord, most teacher-training in Northern Ireland is segregated. It seems contrary to the principles of higher education that there should be religious segregation—all the more so because some of those teachers will teach in integrated schools. Such a division seems wrong, and the Government fund it. All that I am saying is that, if the Government fund a system, they have a little leverage on the powers that be to make some progress. That is my plea.

My comments on the railways will be much more popular, as I agree very much with what was said. In Britain we are still suffering from the vandalism perpetrated by the Beeching cuts. There are many areas of the country where people would dearly wish to restore the railways, although they are not always able to, as some have disappeared altogether. They can be restored more economically than the old system that they replaced.

I would hate to see the lovely railway system along the north coast of Northern Ireland closed down and destroyed. It is an asset in terms of tourism, the economy and links between the two main cities in Northern Ireland. It would be most unfortunate if the Government did not feel able to continue that system. I only wish that they would say, "Yes, we will keep them and modernise them". The superb modernised system between Belfast and Dublin is one of the best railways not only in Ireland but also in Britain. If we can have a good system there, I do not see why we cannot have a decent, modern, effective and economic railway system linking the two main cities in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Government will reconsider their approach, as evidenced by the consultation documents, of thinking of closing it.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

I had not intended to speak on this order, but some of the matters raised have encouraged me to do so. There has been debate on the extent to which education costs derive from the fact that we have three parallel systems. We accept that having three systems increases the cost of delivering education; we live with that.

The education system endeavours to cater for all children right across the board, which it does with considerable success. I declare an interest as a former primary school principal, but Northern Ireland compares favourably with the rest of the United Kingdom in its delivery of education. Despite that, we are now having the Costello report imposed on us. I do not have time to go into the detail of what it entails and its impact on the education system, nor is this the place for me to do so. But it is significant that when I asked what sort of infrastructure audit had been carried out of the current education provision, from which the Costello report would have to be implemented, I was told bluntly that there had been no infrastructural audit.

My reason for rising to my feet is that it is absolutely intolerable that we have the sort of disruption that Costello will bring to the education system in Northern Ireland. We are being told that there has been no infrastructure audit and no real thought has been given to how Costello can gel with what is currently a fairly successful system. If that is the basis on which educational planning is being carried forward by this Government, how can we have any hope of proper financial planning or use of the finite resources that are available? I shall be particularly interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that. My question derives from the statement to the effect that there has been no infrastructure audit of educational facilities in Northern Ireland. How can one make changes without having assessed one's starting point?

My one other point relates to the issue of autism, raised by my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Laird. There is a gap left where the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety between them fail autistic children. A great deal of emphasis has been placed on early intervention, and I have personal experience of how that can be successful. Early intervention is working fairly well within Northern Ireland. But there is a gap, because not all children are diagnosed—identified may be a better word—at an early age. With nine to 18 year-olds, to chose an arbitrary period, there is a huge gap.

Young people in the home, with parents who want to do the best for them, may have such behavioural problems that it is an exceedingly difficult task. There is no one for children at that age to whom the parents can turn. There are no properly trained nurses to go out to the homes to give on the spot advice on how those young people can be catered for. That is a very sad and trying situation for families who encounter that difficulty. Will the Minister indicate where, within the budgetary facilities that are being discussed here today, there is planning to provide resources to fill that gap for the nine to 18 year-old autistic young people who have been missed out in the past?

Viscount Brookeborough

I must apologise for not being here at the beginning of the sitting. I am not going to speak about any particular subject. We come back here every year and say the same things or a variation on the same things, and, to be honest, I have not seen one single major benefit come out of our long discussions. That is not just because the Government do not listen. We inevitably get changes in Ministers and changes of emphasis, and we are always waiting for the next step forward—for September, when we either will or will not get an Assembly back.

There has been far too much inactivity through the Ministers, who are the only people who can action anything. I am not accusing them of being useless, or of anything like that. We have had some excellent Ministers; in fact, the more excellent they are, the quicker they are moved, which is also a problem. We seriously need somebody to get a grip on the infrastructure, as the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, was saying. That is not simple, but someone must get a grip on it, stop talking about it and stop looking at it as if it were something to be handed back next week or next month. I wish those issues could have been handed back so quickly, but we were talking about "next week or next month" in 1971 and 1972, and we are still talking about it.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, referred to the region being as big as Hampshire or Dorset—and there are other very big counties in England. The Committee should consider the number of health boards, education boards and cross-border groups—which I am not against; it should consider the number of cross-border organisations, such as Waterways Ireland, the Rivers Agency, the Loughs Agency and so on. I shall tell the Committee where the cost goes: it goes because nobody has settled down, got a grip on things and made a decision.

There have been numerous consultations about what to do with the health service, with regard to the boards, and what to do with the number of education and library boards. We even had one on the water system, considering the issue of fluoride. To be honest, the options have been there, and the governments of the day—and this happened with the Conservatives, too, so the issue is not about Labour—have simply sidelined the issues. While they continue to do that, we will be back next year with exactly the same problem.

With Waterways Ireland and the Rivers Agency, for example, things are in a complete muddle. I can tell Members of the Committee that, because there is an incidence of that confusion down on Lough Erne. People do not know where the dividing line is between the two bodies. I was not going to mention this matter, but now I shall: there is a jetty at the Share Centre for handicapped people, on public ground. It was put up about 20 years ago, and it is now too dangerous to use. I have been on to Waterways Ireland, which has £7 million that it did not spend, but it absolutely refuses to move on the matter. I know that that body will say that it is consulting, because it told me that, and I have goodness knows how many letters. I have been on to the Rivers Agency, which said that the matter was nothing to do with it.

That is bureaucracy of the highest order. With Waterways Ireland in Fermanagh in particular, I know a lot of people working in that region who say that the body is simply not allowed to produce policy within the system under their present leadership. That leadership has no interest whatever in being in Fermanagh—it was moved from Dublin.

I can promise the Committee that the expenditure that we are discussing today is controlled by bureaucracy because nobody will get a grip on things. The sooner that someone gets a grip on things, the sooner we can sort things out.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

When I introduced the counties of Hampshire and Dorset, I had no idea whether they are well or badly run. I just put them forward as a population group which is virtually identical with the population of Northern Ireland. With Dorset and Hampshire, two bureaucracies would be involved, while there is one in Northern Ireland.

I used the example of education because it was easier to get hold of the figure. There is a £1,300 million spend on it in Northern Ireland. Yes, there may be ways in which to chip at the figure—to say that it includes this and that that is not being taken account of and that the comparative figure may be a bit more. But I do not believe that they would meet.

I am not saying that more is spent on education than ought to be spent. It may well be exactly as it ought to be. I am saying that the only advantage of noble Lords being here today is that many of us who live in England can say, "We are looking at this Northern Ireland order but what does it look like in England? How can we make some comparisons?".

I suggest that there is a comparator and that there may be areas of service in which it could be seen as a benchmark and questions asked. I suspect that the bureaucracy issue will be one of them.

5 p.m.

Lord Fitt

I rise briefly to support the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, in his expression of optimism in relation to Northern Ireland. Prior to his speaking, I heard voices from the past, since the Northern Ireland state came into being. When the state came into being, there have been people in charge of affairs who always want to wear the mantle of victimhood. There was someone always against them.

I have sat in previous Northern Ireland parliaments and there was a time when the Catholic minority, the nationalist minority, felt that they were the victims. Now that that has been changed, to a large extent the Unionist Party feels that it is the victim. As I have listened today, I have felt like supporting the Government in what they decide to do in Northern Ireland. The state that exists there now has not been brought about by the British Government; it has been brought about by the Northern Ireland electorate, electing people they supported. For example, no one cast a vote to send all of us here today. Those who were politicians may have been voted for, but no one cast a vote to send us here. I know that in Northern Ireland, as in other parts of the United Kingdom, there is a revulsion at the very existence of this place.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was right when a few weeks ago he put all the Northern Ireland orders he had received that morning on the Dispatch Box. I find it absolutely impossible to contend with all the paraphernalia that we receive from the Northern Ireland Office. No one, and particularly an individual such as myself, could possibly deal with every aspect of the legislation contained therein. It is different for the Unionist Party. Members of the Ulster Unionist Party here have secretarial assistance.

We criticise many aspects of what the Government are doing in relation to legislation in Northern Ireland; for example, these orders. We have a half-time Assembly in Northern Ireland. Before these orders were printed, did the Northern Ireland Office have discussions with the elected representatives to the Northern Ireland Assembly? Did it ask for their opinion? The representatives are on some sort of a wage and they can say that they were the latest people to have felt the support of the Northern Ireland electorate.

The orders have been drawn up possibly by civil servants. In the absence of an Assembly and the opinions of the Members, it must be left to civil servants. There is no other way of legislating for everyday happenings in Northern Ireland. By the way, I think that the Anti-social Behaviour Order and the Dangerous Wild Animals Order could be combined. However, I cannot see any part of Northern Ireland, particularly in West Belfast, which I know well, which could in any way implement the provisions of the Antisocial Behaviour Order in Northern Ireland. There is some talk of putting tags on people who have been involved in that behaviour. Can you imaging kids running around Ballymurphy or—

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

The noble Lord must speak to the order before us.

Lord Fitt

Yes, I know I have diverted. I was trying to illustrate that it is impossible for us to deal with the orders that we have coming in by every post. They should be dealt with in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Its members have been elected and have more authority than, for example, noble Lords in this House. They can say that they sought the opinions of the electors. The two main political parties in control of Northern Ireland are not represented here. One of them is represented in the other place but the other—Sinn Fein—is not represented at all. I wonder what sort of input they had in the discussions that have led to the promulgation of these orders?

Where do we go from here? I think that the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, was quite right when he talked about getting a grip on things. Now, to translate that into language that we understand, how does one get a grip on things? We have an Assembly in Northern Ireland that does not want to get a grip on anything. The members of the Assembly will be the people who should be taking decisions on these orders and will be, we hope, in September.

Again, I can hear voices from the past, particularly that of the noble Lord, Lord Laird. The political developments that have taken place in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement—the cross-border agreements—are not to the taste of everybody in Northern Ireland. Quite a lot of people in Northern Ireland see the cross-border agreements as being some form of concession to Sinn Fein, to the total exclusion of the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland.

So what should we concentrate on before we begin to unravel and understand most of this? I think we should concentrate on trying to get the Assembly in Northern Ireland re-established. The people to talk to are not us. We have no influence in the streets and byways of Northern Ireland. The groups who should be talked to, if we can talk to them, are Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party. They hold the key to political progress in Northern Ireland. Aside from all the talking that we do here and the well-intentioned remarks that we make, it is those two political parties.

By the way, did the Government talk to the SDLP or any other political party in Northern Ireland on these orders before they put them into print? If they did not, they should have. I do not believe that any criticism of the Northern Ireland Civil Service is justified. We have a civil service that has served the community in Northern Ireland well over many troublesome years. They are in this position now because there is no one else to accept the responsibility that they have to accept in relation to the promulgation of these orders. I can only advise the Leader of the House, in consultation with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to use every endeavour to relieve this House and its individual Members of the burden of trying to go through these orders and to get the decisions taken where they should be taken, in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Lord Laird

The noble Lord referred to me in his speech. I wish to make the point that it is not that I, as an Ulster Unionist, am opposed to cross-border bodies, because it is quite something to have had a chairman of a cross-border body from the Ulster Unionist party. It is not that. It is that the cross-border bodies do not operate fairly, if they operated fairly, I would be totally in support of them. I am not a voice from the past. I am a great supporter and admirer of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and his acumen for explaining things. However, I wish to clarify my position for the Committee.

Baroness Amos

I could not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, more about relieving all of us of the burden of considering these orders in the detail that we must. I entirely agree with the sentiments that have been expressed in Grand Committee this afternoon and I share the regret that has been expressed by noble Lords that we have to consider these orders this afternoon.

Members of the Committee will be well aware that we have been focusing on trying to reach agreement. We have urged the party to maintain its engagement over the summer. The Committee will also be aware that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have said that efforts need to be made to step up the dialogue and discussions so that we can try to come to a resolution.

I thank Members of the Committee for recognising that responding to today's debate will be something of a Herculean task. I shall do my best. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, asked questions about whether political parties had been consulted on the budget order. I can assure him that they were consulted.

I shall start by addressing some of the more general points that have been made before moving on to the specific points. I shall start with some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, with respect to the Barnett formula and so forth, before going on to some of the issues about efficiency that were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and others.

The Barnett formula represents the mechanism for determining changes to the devolved budget. Thus, there is no difference between the resources that come through Barnett and other resources that are allocated to local ministries in order to address spending priorities in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, raised some specific points about the detail of the estimates, particularly the additionality of EU funds. The allocation of EU funds is factored into the sums set out in the estimates. The additionality of funds is validated by the Treasury to ensure that the full draw down is achieved.

Regarding EU moneys more generally, it is important to appreciate that those estimates are a financial statement. The allocations made by various EU bodies are fully reported on in the various EU monitoring committee reports that are produced annually. Of course, that is a requirement by the European Commission auditors.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, spoke about efficiency duplication, the efficiency review and bureaucracy in some detail, but it was also raised by the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Molyneaux and others. On the efficiency review, we are committed to at least matching the efficiency targets. In numerical terms, that means achieving efficiency gains in excess of £500 million by 2007–08. In addition, administration costs will be held at the 2005–06 levels for 2006–07 and 2007–08.

Some initial work has been undertaken. Members of the Committee will be pleased to learn that the rationalisation of back-office functions, such as finance and personnel, is a key area where savings can be delivered. The ongoing review of public administration addresses the relative costs of running Northern Ireland, which is an issue raised particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. The work includes benchmarking the costs of producing health and education with comparable areas in England and elsewhere.

The use of consultants exercises the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. The recent audit office report into the employment of consultants by Northern Ireland departments of course identified some shortcomings in procedures and recording systems. But the report also acknowledged the significant pressures that exist with the introduction of devolution, the creation of the four new departments and the introduction of resource accounting and budgeting. As I think that I made clear to the noble Lord when this was raised on the Floor of the House in a Starred Question, we are of course looking at the recommendations in that report in order to put them into effect.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, raised the broader question of consultation and the quality of that consultation, and more general concerns were raised by Members of the Committee. We carry out consultation precisely because it is important that we find out and understand what communities want. But Members of the Committee also need to recognise that we have a statutory requirement, under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, to carry out consultation. So it is something that the Government think is important, but it is also a statutory requirement.

5.15 p.m.

The issue of public administration was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. The review was launched in 2002 and the noble Lord was concerned about where we have got to with it. It is the most far-reaching examination ever of how public services in Northern Ireland are organised and delivered and aims to deliver a more effective and efficient system of public administration to the people of Northern Ireland.

In consultation with the main political parties it is planned to publish a firm proposals paper for consultation in the autumn of this year. The scale of the proposed reform will inevitably require a lengthy implementation phase, which will allow sufficient time for a return to devolution and for the local executive to influence the final outcome. Yesterday, my honourable friend Ian Pearson announced his view that a reduction in the number of district councils and health bodies would be appropriate. That, of course, will be a key issue for the consultation process.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, also raised absenteeism. As a result of a recent PAC report, DFP has issued to all departments a new circular that puts in place a robust monitoring system which will address the problem at a much earlier stage through a trigger-point system. That will bring about a measurable improvement. The noble Lord also asked for the statistics relating to 2003–04. Those statistics are not yet available, but when they are I shall ensure that the noble Lord has a copy of them.

As regards the pay dispute, I recognise that the dispute is having an impact on particular key services and is causing not only inconvenience but also some hardship to the public. We are working hard to secure an early settlement in order to return public services to their usual high standard. Last week, the management side presented a number of proposals to the trade union in an effort to break the deadlock. For its part, the trade union also tabled some proposals, which are being considered by the management side.

However, talks between management of the Civil Service and representatives of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance were adjourned by the trade union at lunchtime last Friday. That was because the trade union indicated that it did not believe that it could reach a settlement of the dispute on the basis of the overall pay remit set by the Government for the negotiations. The trade union has now sought an early meeting with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to seek to have the pay remit figure increased for the Northern Ireland Civil Service. That request is now being considered and an early response will be sent to the trade union.

On the more specific point of the impact that that dispute is having on the payments of subsidies and grants, NIPSA called a strike for administrative staff in payments branch, Orchard House, Derry/Londonderry. While the strike started on 12 March, on 6 July more than half of the staff taking part in the industrial action returned to work. The return to work of those staff will help the departments concentrate on priority work areas and, in particular, those cases where payments have been delayed due to queries.

Despite the strike action, the Department for Agricultural and Rural Development has made many of the subsidy balance payments now due. The amount of subsidy processed since 12 May stands at £39.8 million. Around £20 million remains to be paid. That largely reflects query and penalty cases that have failed the automated cross-checks. Action is in hand to process those cases so that the majority of the still outstanding payments can be processed over the coming days.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, also raised concerns about what is happening to the health service in Northern Ireland. There is a regional programme of work being taken forward in 2004–05 to examine how pressures on hospitals can be eased.

A number of Members of the Committee raised questions about education. The noble Lords, Lord Glentoran, Lord Laird and Lord Maginnis, asked specific questions in relation to the review of post-primary education. I know that there are very strongly held and diverse views about academic selection in Northern Ireland. However, change is unavoidable. There are weaknesses in our current arrangements that must be addressed. The decline in pupil numbers cannot be ignored.

The Government's review of post-primary education will build on the strengths of the current system offering both choice and flexibility and will provide all pupils with education that they see as relevant to their needs. All schools, including grammar schools, can have a place under the new arrangements. But those offering a traditional academic emphasis must also offer people access to a guaranteed minimum number of vocational courses.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Does she not find it somewhat strange that at a time when this new Labour Government have abandoned the idea of turning grammar schools in Great Britain into comprehensive schools and have declared that they have no further ambition in that direction, they now seek to undermine the element within education in Northern Ireland that has been a huge success over so many years?

Is it not inappropriate that the Government have no idea of the number of teacher or pupil hours that would be involved in moving children or teachers from one school to another? They just have not bothered to find out the impact of the Costello report. That is the difficulty we have. We believe that our educational system can stand on its own feet because it is a good system, but it is being destroyed without any preplanning.

Baroness Amos

I do not agree with the noble Lord. He is not right when he talks about the Government abandoning plans in England and Wales where they have made absolutely clear that they want to achieve a balance between flexibility and choice, which is what they want to achieve in Northern Ireland as well.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

That means nothing.

Baroness Amos

No, I do not agree with that. It does not mean nothing. It means that the Government are seeking to ensure that we have a system that puts excellence at the heart but which, at the same time, meets the needs of all pupils. To do that, we recognise that we must have a range of provisions. In my earlier comments, I made absolutely clear that all schools, including grammar schools, can have a place under the new arrangements. Those schools offering a traditional academic emphasis will also need to offer a guaranteed minimum number of vocational courses.

If the noble Lord has looked at the education system in England and Wales he will know that in seeking to encourage specialisation in city academies some 10 per cent of pupils are drawn through selection. That is part of the method to enhance excellence and to draw people in from a wider area while, at the same, encouraging excellence in a local school. That mix of choice, flexibility and excellence is precisely what we would also like to see in Northern Ireland.

As regards the Department for Education provision, the budget includes £3.2 million for the review of post-primary education in order to provide for ongoing groundwork to support implementation of revised arrangements. The questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, with respect to the knowledge that we have of what currently exists will be picked up through that review. But it will not he possible to estimate the total cost of those arrangements until decisions begin to emerge at a local level.

The issue of integrated education was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Kilclooney, and my noble friend Lord Dubs. The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, made her view of what is happening at a local level absolutely clear. Integrated education is accorded the highest priority, but long-term planning of schools infrastructure needs to consider factors, such as rapidly-falling birth rates. Such factors have significant influences on school building provision.

Regarding the specific question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, about works for the schools estate, the order contains a specific provision of £26 million for minor works to improve the schools estate, including the removal of temporary classrooms and improved access for those with disabilities. That is in addition to the already substantial planned investment in the schools estate. On 27 April my honourable friend Barry Gardiner announced an investment programme covering 43 schools, including the funding of 12 schools through public/private partnership.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, asked about children with autistic spectrum disorder and the noble Lord, Lord Laird, mentioned a specific case which, of course, I cannot address here. I understand that there will be an additional £0.5 million allocated to develop diagnostic assessment and early support services in 2004–05. The establishment of multi-disciplinary diagnostic and assessment teams will reduce waiting times for diagnosis and provide initial support for parents.

DHSSPS is working closely with the Department for Education to implement the recommendations in the task group report on the education of children and young people with autistic spectrum disorder and on the establishment of a centre of excellence in autism at Middletown.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, asked about the student numbers cap. Currently, the Department for Employment and Learning is carrying out a public consultation exercise on the Higher Education Bill. The Minister with responsibility for employment and learning will wish to consider the issue of removing any cap on student numbers as part of that consultation exercise.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, referred to planning. I fully appreciate the concerns raised by Members of the Committee on that issue. I would also point out that the planning service is now in its second year of a three-year programme to deliver fundamental reforms to the planning system. A number of key issues have already been addressed. Further significant progress will be achieved over the next six months.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. I only made the point in relation to the strike. Had I been making some points about the planning service, I would have had to have declared an interest: I have had an application in for two-and-a-half years. That is why I stayed away from that point.

Baroness Amos

I thank the noble Lord for that clarification. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, raised some concerns about the underspend in certain programmes and the Strategic Investment Board. Of £220 million of departmental underspend, some £157 million relates to slippage in capital programmes. I know that raises some bigger questions about why there has been that degree of slippage in capital programmes, but all of us will recognise that it is very unusual for a capital programme not to experience slippage.

The Strategic Investment Board was established in April last year to facilitate the development of key infrastructure programmes. The focusing of high calibre expertise and advice has enabled us to take forward a number of significant infrastructure investment programmes in key areas, including water treatment, education and roads.

I turn to the railways, an issue which I know is of concern to many noble Lords. It was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Shutt, Lord Laird and Lord Kilclooney, and my noble friend Lord Dubs. Closure of the railways on the non-core lines is only one option which is still out for consultation. Ministers need to take on board all the options and consider the economic, social and environmental impact in the wider budgetary context. Noble Lords will recognise that we need to address a number of pressing issues. The consultation exercise follows a statutory requirement and will conclude on 23 July. We will of course have to ensure that we achieve maximum value for money.

5.30 p.m.

On the issue of investment in the roads, a matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, the funding allocated to the road service as part of the regional transportation strategy will see significant improvements on the major roads mentioned by the noble Lord.

Concerns were also expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Laird and Lord Kilclooney, about the cost of the civic forum. The provision in the order is for the full-year costs of the body. The figure quoted for previous years reflects actual costs during suspension, hence the apparent increase. We all hope that suspension will cease, so the approach we have taken in the budget is consistent with our wish for an early restoration of devolution. In the event that the resources are not needed by the civic forum, they will be reallocated to other priority areas. So I can reassure noble Lords that the money will not simply be allocated and then not spent. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, also spoke of the wider role of the civic forum. That will form part of the review and of the talks.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, asked about funding for the North/South bodies. Indeed, the noble Lord has written to me on many occasions about this matter. All budgets for North/South bodies are agreed jointly by the government of both the North and the South. The 2004 budgets for each of the bodies have now been jointly agreed. Under current arrangements, North/South bodies are required to operate on a care and maintenance basis only and, in this context, budget proposals should not include any substantive development costs. I am well aware of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Laird, about the level of the budget allocated for the Ulster Scots Agency in 2004. He has tabled a number of Written Questions on the matter.

Lord Laird

When the noble Baroness says that the budgets have been "agreed", with whom have they been agreed? One of the planks of the current political process in Northern Ireland is consultation. I believe in consultation since I will talk to anyone about almost anything. But no discussion or agreement has taken place between the agency, the implementation bodies, the language body and both governments. That is the point I cannot understand.

As for care and maintenance, the language body seems to be the only one to suffer this business of care and maintenance. Waterways Ireland is to have a 40 per cent increase in its budget for the year 2004. It seems rather unfair that we should be the only body to suffer from care and maintenance. It is not a case of taking new territories. The Ulster Scots Agency was seeking to continue with a policy which it has now had to stop.

Baroness Amos

I think that the noble Lord and I will have to agree to disagree on this point. I have written to the noble Lord on a number of occasions setting out the consultation which has taken place and the fact that the relevant sponsoring departments have agreed this budget. I am aware that the noble Lord then requested the minutes of meetings which were held. I have explained to the noble Lord in the form of a Written Answer that under data protection legislation it is not possible to supply those minutes. Given that, I think that we will have to disagree. Although I have written to the noble Lord a number of times, it is clear that he does not accept the explanations I have given.

Perhaps I may repeat that the relevant sponsoring departments have agreed that the current budget allocation is an appropriate amount to meet the agency's basic care and maintenance needs for 2004.

Lord Laird

Again, agreed with whom? As a former chairman of the body, not to get access to minutes to prove that there was consultation seems somewhat unusual. There was no consultation in the sense of a discussion about policy. There was a telephone call to tell the agency what would be its budget and what had been agreed with the Irish. In my opinion, that does not constitute consultation, discussion or agreement. I cannot understand why, when policies were working successfully last year, they were not allowed to continue. If there was a good reason for their not being allowed to continue, if someone had a better policy, we should have liked to have heard about it. But to do that without discussion, consultation or agreement is crass in the extreme.

Baroness Amos

Perhaps I can remind the noble Lord that no money was taken away from the Ulster-Scots Agency. The agency received a year-on-year increase. It was not as high as the agency wanted, but many organisations find themselves in that situation. When they receive a year-on-year increase, they make decisions about their priorities. That is all that I can tell the Committee at this point. I am happy to maintain my correspondence with the noble Lord on that point, but I must tell him that I can add nothing further to what I have already said.

On the issue of minutes, again I made clear to the noble Lord in a Written Answer on 23 April that, under Part 2, Paragraph 2 of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, which covers internal discussion and advice, it would be inappropriate for the Government to disclose documentation relating to discussions on the budget for the language body.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

Perhaps I am slow on the uptake, but I should like the Minister to explain in more detail because I genuinely fail to understand how access to minutes of a public body can come under the scope of data protection to the extent that the democratic process can be undermined so that public representatives in this and another place do not have access to the minutes relating to the functioning of a public body. I fail to understand.

Baroness Amos

Clearly, if a public body is holding an open meeting discussing its budget, that information is widely available. If there is an internal discussion between the body and its parent department—Members of the Committee who have operated in public bodies will understand this—that is a matter of internal discussion and advice, which then goes to Ministers and is not in the public domain. There is no problem here. There is no other body in which that is recognised as being a problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, also raised the issue of the staff of the North-South Ministerial Council secretariat having contact with the Ulster Political Research Group. Staff from the secretariat, acting in their capacity as officials of the Irish Government and OFMDFM, have helped to facilitate meetings between members of the Ulster Political Research Group as part of the overall policy of community engagement endorsed by the British and Irish Governments. No other support or funding has been provided by the Government.

The noble Lord also raised the issue of funding for festivals. Review of funding for festivals has been undertaken to inform future strategy for government support of festivals. The report has been considered by Ministers and a policy and guidance framework based on the report's recommendations is being developed.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, asked specifically about the removal of industrial derating. We have discussed the topic before in Grand Committee. I remind the noble Lord that firms will have had more than eight years from when the policy decision to remove industrial derating was first announced to prepare for the payment of full rates.

Finally, two other matters were raised. The first was the issue of economic inequalities between the north and the south, also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. The Republic of Ireland economy has indeed grown dramatically during the past decade but it was starting from a very low base. It has also had fiscal and monetary autonomy, which Northern Ireland does not have, but the main economic indicators in both north and south are still heading in the same, favourable direction. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, raised the specific issue of working to help those who want to cease a life of violence. I shall have to write to him on that.

On Question, Motion agreed to.