HL Deb 15 March 2005 vol 670 cc469-92GC
The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.

The noble Baroness said: It is unfortunate that the legislation cannot be considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The draft order before us today has two purposes. The first is to authorise a total revised amount of resources for 2004–05 of £11.764 billion and the issue of a total revised amount of cash from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund for 2004–05 of £10.278 billion. That represents an increase in resources of £477.6 million and an increase in cash of £390 million over the position authorised by Parliament in the main estimates for the current financial year.

The second purpose is to authorise a vote on account to allow funds to continue to flow to public services for the early months of the next financial year, until the main estimates for 2005–06 can be presented and considered. The draft order seeks Parliament's authorisation for the use of resources amounting to £5.498 billion and for the issue of cash from the Consolidated Fund of the sum of £4.656 billion.

In general, the resource and cash amounts required on account for 2005–06 have been calculated as 45 per cent of the 2004–05 total voted provision. Final approval of the allocations for 2005–06 is not being sought. What is being sought is sufficient resources and cash to allow services to proceed until the detailed work on the main estimates has been completed in the early summer. By approving the vote on account, noble Lords will not pre-empt decisions on the final allocations for 2006. That discussion will take place later this year. Details of the sums sought are given in the spring supplementary estimates and the vote on account, copies of which have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

I will not identify the changes contained in the supplementary estimates, as the introduction to each departmental estimate in the supplementary estimates booklet sets out in detail the main changes for which approval is sought. I shall of course try to answer any questions of detail that may be raised. I commend the order to the Committee. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.—(Baroness Amos.)

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, for bringing forward the order for consideration, and I concur with her that it is unfortunate that the order should have to be debated in this way and in this place. After all, it is not about the amount of money that the British Government's block grant to Northern Ireland comprises or about raising taxes to fund that grant; it is essentially about the division of the grant among the 12 departments that now constitute the Northern Ireland Government, were it in place. It is essentially a matter for the elected representatives of the Northern Ireland people.

Having said that, I am still not convinced that we are tackling the matter in the best or most efficient way to reflect that situation. However, I was pleased to note in Commons Hansard that, for a change, considerable discussion had taken place during a number of debates. I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me if I raise several issues that were raised at the other end of the Building by my honourable friend David Lidington. There is much in the order that we welcome—for example, the commitment to enterprise, the desire to improve the quality of front-line services and the intention to reduce the administrative costs of government and improve efficiency. We welcome all that Her Majesty's Government have said about the need for the Government to support enterprise and innovation in the Northern Ireland economy. However, it is important that we note the conclusion reached by the Northern Ireland Business Alliance. It is difficult to see how the current structure of the economy in Northern Ireland will sustain real economic growth, if there is a slow-down or decline in public expenditure.

My personal experience over 30 years in business in Northern Ireland is that the business sector has been very unreasonably dependent on government expenditure, and in particular on expenditure on the infrastructure. I declare an interest, although I do not have it now, having been involved in the construction industry in Northern Ireland for much of that time.

I refer to the reinforced view that Northern Ireland is dependent on disproportionately high public expenditure and that a strategy is needed to shift economic dependence away from public sector dominance to the private sector. Since the peace agreement in 1998, it would appear that the economy has moved in the wrong direction. My first point is that a serious new look must be given to moving the Northern Ireland economy away from public sector dependence.

At the moment there is an imbalance in the economy of roughly 60 per cent of GDP. About 30 per cent of employment is in the public sector. Some months ago, the noble Baroness indicated in Written Answers that about 33.5 per cent or 34 per cent of the employed population were employed by government. It should be a clear strategic objective of the Government to reduce the role of the state and the public sector and allow the private sector a greater share in delivering growth and prosperity. That is a sustainable future course for the economy.

Her Majesty's Government state in the budget document that they intend to peg the administrative costs of Northern Ireland departments to the level predicted for 2005–06. I wonder why that target has been chosen. It does not seem to have any great basis. The Government's document on Civil Service reform, Fit for Purpose, states on page 13 that the number employed in the Northern Ireland Civil Service rose by 3,400 between 2000 and 2004. However, the Government's target is to reduce that total by 2,300 by 2007–08. Their aim appears to be that by 2008 the number employed in the Northern Ireland Civil Service will be 1,100 more than it was in the year 2000. I am not sure what that will achieve in real terms. Why has that approach been chosen?

We welcome the figures contained in supplementary estimates which suggest that, for most departments at least, administrative costs in the current financial year are estimated to be less than forecast in the original provision published in last year's main estimates. However, again, one or two cautionary notes ought to be sounded. In all but three departments the revised estimate is still higher than the administrative costs for 2003–04. We know that the figures for those administrative costs differ somewhat from those published as an annex to the Government's budget document. On the basis of the figures published in the supplementary estimates we are still looking at 2004–05 and overall administrative costs for the Northern Ireland departments and Assembly of £893 million, compared with £760.5 million at the beginning of the current Parliament in 2001–02. That is well ahead of inflation. That is a significant increase over that period. Are the Government determined to reduce those costs to previous levels? I would also like to know something of their plans.

I am interested to know how the Government plan to improve efficiency and value for money in the governance of Northern Ireland. The Minister will know that a report from the Public Accounts Committee earlier this year criticised the level of absenteeism and sickness absence in the public sector in Northern Ireland. Ministers showed that overall levels of absenteeism and sickness absence in the public sector in Northern Ireland ran at a level that could not be justified, even taking account of the special circumstances that pertain in the Province.

From memory, for example, the average sick leave taken by people working for the Child Support Agency in Northern Ireland was more than 20 working days a year. Many years ago, we used to criticise the Civil Service for that kind of sickness absence, but I thought that such practice had gone out 20 years ago. However, we know that Her Majesty's Government have committed themselves to tighter management of absenteeism and to bringing down those figures. How confident is the Minister that those plans will be deliverable and in the timescale set by the papers? Real leadership and real management are required. Under the present process, do Her Majesty's Government have the right people to provide the leadership and management that a very fine Civil Service requires and deserves?

There is also a proposal for savings of £8.5 million from what is described as a reduction in the fixed-cost elements of school budgets—lighting, heating, rates and so on—to reflect demographic decline. Will the Minister explain how the sums of the Department of Education's ETN add up and what that will mean for the bills that individual schools will face? Furthermore, will she explain how the proposed savings of £4.1 million will be found by public libraries in Northern Ireland and what that will mean for the service? Are there plenty of excessive administration costs that can be cut without damaging the front-line service? I doubt it.

We were also disappointed that the Government's priorities and budget document was not linked to the review of public administration that has been simmering on the back-burner for too long. It is surely essential that the Government's expenditure plan for the next three years should be closely linked with whatever they propose about the shape, structure and delivery of public services in the Province over the same period. I have pressed for the reorganisation of public administration and local government in Northern Ireland ever since I have been in the House. It is a vital plank in the way forward for governing Northern Ireland. I am disappointed that no account is taken of it. A report is waiting to be published and debated, but it does not appear to be reflected in the Northern Ireland budget.

I now turn to the Planning Service, in which I have a small interest. It has taken me two and a half years to obtain planning permission for a change of use, and at the end of two years the Planning Service discovered that it had the wrong address and almost had to start again. I wonder where that takes us. It has also been on strike for a considerable time, which also has not helped, but it is all about leadership, about which I spoke earlier.

The Northern Ireland Institute of Directors reported that staff numbers in the Planning Service had risen from 400 in 1999 to 800 at the end of 2002, but that planning applications were still taking an average of 17 weeks to process. The Government's target was to reduce average waiting time from 17 weeks to 15 weeks by 2008. Is that target sufficiently ambitious, and does it really deal with the problem that seriously concerns Northern Ireland business? My experience of the Planning Service, as I said, is very much worse, and I know such problems to be seriously damaging.

A particular instance is taking place now. There is a major investment opportunity in Northern Ireland involving the John Lewis Partnership. I understand that the Planning Service messed about with it for quite a long time. It almost got to fruition, but somebody in middle management or the Roads Service has once again messed it up. I know that the Government know about it, so I hope that the Minister will say something about that later on.

3.45 p.m.

With regard to the Department of Education, do the Government intend to implement the recommendations in the Costello report and will they be costed? The clear implication of the report is that there will be fewer schools and that the schools service will be reorganised. In my experience, any reorganisation costs money, but it does not seem to appear in the budget.

The Government want all secondary schools to provide for a broadly based entitlement curriculum, involving quite a large number of subjects. Certain schools will presumably need not just staff, but laboratories and classrooms in which to teach those subjects. This will cost money. If the Government are determined to press ahead with the Costello plans, they need to provide a detailed financial assessment of what those plans entail. Will that be forthcoming?

Lastly, we on this side still question whether Her Majesty's Government are sufficiently ambitious and radical in their strategic thinking about the need to restructure the economy of Northern Ireland to give the private sector a greater role in the medium and long term, because that is in the best interests of all the people in the province. Manufacturing business is at a low level. IKEA, a multinational retailer, has just decided to relocate its concerns in Dublin and to take its business out of Northern Ireland completely. That is a very serious blow to the local economy. It is a symptom of a growing trend. The culture of objection to any development is causing economic decline. The inability of the public planning process to respond rapidly to applications is stifling the economy. I look forward to hearing some rather challenging and optimistic words from the Minister.

Lord Smith of Clifton

I too thank the Lord President for introducing this order. I shall make some general observations; the details will be taken up by my noble friends.

Here we are, another year on, as the Minister remarked. And we will be here again next year because this is going to be a very long period of direct rule. The Government must suggest a better procedure for Parliament when it handles Northern Ireland business. As I have said, we will be here again next year, considering a very detailed and elaborate budget in a relatively short space of time, unless procedures are introduced to improve our scrutiny.

There is too much of a build-up of surpluses in this budget. There is now a £400 million underspend. That would be inconceivable for any public agency in Great Britain, whether local government or a national department—speaking on a proportionate basis. It perpetuates the culture of corporatism and collectivism which has permeated the political economy of Northern Ireland for decades and which impedes growth and prosperity. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said much the same thing. There has been an improvement in the economic health of Northern Ireland in the past few years, but it could be so much better if it were less caught up in this collectivist culture. There is hardly a sweetie shop in Northern Ireland which is not dependent on some sort of public handout.

The budget is very poorly presented. It is far too technical and not readily accessible. It puts a premium on obfuscation rather than ease of understanding. I venture to say that it is more complicated, contrived and convoluted than an IRA money-laundering business plan.

I must ask the Minister about two specific areas of the budget. We understand that tomorrow the Chancellor will announce a burning of quangos. Will there be a corresponding burning of quangos in Northern Ireland? When I went there in 1991, I remarked that the economy was more corporatist than Benito Mussolini's Italy, more collectivist than Joe Stalin's Russia and more quango-ised than Britain under the two Harolds. That remains very much the case more than a decade on. Will there be a burning of quangos?

Will there be a culling of the dependency on external consultants, which is remarkable? We raised that issue in the past year, when the figures became apparent. Even more remarkable is the fact that many such consultants are former senior civil servants. It is not a bad job, if you can get it. It is all part of the mindset that holds back Northern Ireland, which could have an enterprising economy, if only its energies were unleashed and directed towards enterprise, rather than towards the maintenance of that unhealthy culture.

With that general overview, I say that we will support the order, albeit with a heavy heart. This is not the way to do business. This detailed budget for what is a relatively small place is not user-friendly. The place appears, relatively speaking, to be awash with money in the public sector. We know that the Thatcher revolution never reached the shores of Northern Ireland, but the enterprise culture that the present Government support is also failing to reach Northern Ireland to the degree that is required.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

I too thank the noble Baroness for introducing the order. There are one or two general things that I want to say. It is an incredible task to examine a budget of £10,728 million in two, three or four hours a year, bearing in mind that we have two goes at it—now and again in July.

I also find the figures very difficult to fathom; perhaps that is part of being a humble provincial chartered accountant. The figures are not that user-friendly for anybody. Where is the Barnett formula figure? I am told that that is a difficult matter, because there is the Barnett formula figure and then there are things outside that such as social security and so on, before we get to this figure. It would he useful to have some figures in which we could see it. The injection of the Barnett formula figure year after year obviously helps the figures and means that they can be as high as they are. It would be helpful it we could see how it fitted in.

As I said on the previous occasion, one can barely do more than scratch the surface—or perhaps stroke it a little. Here we are, on 15 March, agreeing to an incredible amount of what in local government used to be called virement, by which big figures are moved from one budget to another and new figures emerge. All these things have been sorted out. I do not think that the figures have been put in place so that there can be a great big spend in the next fortnight. There might be a bit of that, but I think that the die has been cast.

There is another figure that, again, we do not see. My noble friend alluded to the fact that about £400 million had been carried forward. That is the balance as at the end of March 2004. We do not know what it will be in a couple of weeks' time: it may be more, or it may be less. My guess is that it will be more.

I have another general point. We also have the figures for next year—2005–06—called the vote on account. Although my noble friend suggested that we would be back and back, those figures assume that the Northern Ireland Assembly will be up and running for the whole of 2005–06, in that 45 per cent of the total moneys are provided for. It could be that the noble Baroness has more confidence about the return of devolution than my noble friend. If she has any good words to say on that, we will be delighted to hear them.

I find smaller numbers easier to cope with, although bigger numbers are often small numbers with a lot of noughts on. I try to find a smaller number and examine something small in depth. I have examined two areas. On page 105 of the supplementary estimates book, we can see the figures for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. They show the changes that are to take place in tourism. I shall speak to that issue for a moment.

The narrative for the tourism budget is on page 106. Under heading B4, there is reference to an increase in provision. The figure will go up from £298,000 to £528,000. There is also to be an increase for Tourism Ireland Ltd. There is also the Northern Ireland Tourist Board grant. The relevant narrative says that that budget has to go up by £2.8 million. The major element in that is an extra £1.2 million for administration. I do not think that they will spend £1.2 million on administration between now and a fortnight's time, but that is the way it looks. There is another £1.6 million for promotion and marketing. If we add all that together, we see that there is £21.3 million in the tourism budget.

The first thing to ask about that is whether, bearing in mind that £10 million is for the joint tourism body, there should be a substantial Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Perhaps there should be, and perhaps it should be a proud body with a substantial budget. How does the £10 million for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board look? As a local authority member, I used to serve on something called the Yorkshire Tourist Board. What do we spend in Yorkshire? I rang up this morning and found that we spend £5 million. In Yorkshire, we have the Yorkshire coast, the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the south Pennines, York city and so on. There is a lot more to promote in what is a much bigger area than there is in Northern Ireland.

Noble Lords


Lord Shutt of Greetland

I am just looking at the comparisons.

Where does the money come from for the Yorkshire Tourist Board? It gets £300,000 from local authorities; £300,000 from hotel keepers; £1.5 million of public money; and £3 million from revenue generation—revenue generation of their own. We can say that it gets £2 million of public money. In this book, the figure is £21 million of public money. I wonder about value for money.

Noble Lords with a reasonable memory will recall that, a year ago, I raised a point about Northern Ireland Railways. I suggested that it could do a little tourism promotion, particularly on the line from Belfast to Derry near the Causeway coast. I think that we were told that there was not enough money for that. With these vast figures, that cannot be the case. Who will scrutinise the £20 million and say whether we are getting value for money? That is just one area of expenditure.

4 P.m.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Is the budget for the Northern Ireland Events Company part of the tourism budget?

Lord Shutt of Greetland

As I recall, there is a separate budget line for the Northern Ireland Events Company. I flicked through the figures; the numbers were not big.

I wish to look at another area of serious interest. Page 253 of the spring supplementary estimates deals with the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Here I link money and politics because we have neither a First Minister nor a Deputy First Minister, yet total expenditure is to rise from £61.2 million to £66.9 million. I am delighted that substantial peace and reconciliation moneys are included. Although there is neither a First Minister nor a Deputy First Minister, many resources were provided so that they could take initiatives and do what they could in Northern Ireland to help the peace process. It is amazing that the figure has increased.

I would not mind that increase if I thought that there had been the political injection of all sorts of ideas to keep the peace process moving. I am pleased that we will not disturb bodies such as the North/South Ministerial Council and that they will be kept going. However, I am disappointed that the £0.5 million. which is not a large sum, for the Civic Forum has just been ditched. It seems worthwhile to get non-political people involved in what goes on in Northern Ireland. It is strange that on the one hand, quite rightly, we keep some elements of the peace process such as the North/South bodies yet, on the other hand, the very important glue in Northern Ireland of involving ordinary people has been allocated no resources.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, is not here, but we know how she has spoken about victims. It is surprising that there has been a 10 per cent reduction in resources for victims. It is worrying that this section of the budget needs that political injection. I wonder whether it is there as a result of the pluses and minuses involved.

My noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton will be delighted that there has been a decrease of £14.9 million in the moneys available to pay people serving in the Northern Ireland Assembly. But, as I said earlier, the projection is on the basis that the Assembly will start again on 1 April, which many of us think not particularly likely.

These points illustrate the frustration and difficulty of getting a grip on this incredible document. Of course we support it; there is no alternative. But I wish that there were a better way of having a go at being certain that on the one hand there is value for money, while on the other hand the necessary initiatives can be resourced. The resources are there.

Lord Rogan

I too thank the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council for presenting the order.

I wish to pick up on a point that was not satisfactorily answered by the finance Minister. Ian Pearson, when he introduced the order in another place a few weeks ago at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. My colleagues questioned the logic of removing the Children's Fund. That represents a loss of £27 million to services for children and young people at risk. Many charities and voluntary organisations will lose a significant amount of funding. For example, Barnardo's will lose over £1 million from its children's services budget.

On top of that, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will experience a net reduction in the amount of money available for children's services under the priorities for budget 2005–08. Quite simply, we are putting our children at risk.

The Children's Fund was created by the Northern Ireland executive in 2001–02. It aimed to support a range of services for children at risk and families living in poverty. The fund recognised the high rate of child poverty in Northern Ireland—40 per cent of the Province compared with 28 per cent in Great Britain as a whole. Even the 2005–08 budget and priorities document recognises the significance of the problem, with some 150,000 children living below the poverty line. But this budget is far from investing in children.

An allocation of £29 million was made to the Children's Fund over three years. It could be accessed by voluntary organisations and the statutory children's sector. Some £10.5 million went to 12 departmental projects and £18.5 million went to voluntary and community projects. The Children's Fund supported a wide variety of services; for example, support to young mothers, services for young carers, services for disabled children and support for children living with domestic violence. Those are front-line, necessary projects. I submit that ending the Children's Fund represents a substantial blow to the many necessary services for children and young people and a reduction in services for some of the Province's most vulnerable children.

The Minister has claimed that those front-line services will be mainstream, particularly within the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Perhaps the noble Baroness would be interested to know that, in response to a letter from Barnardo's to the Health Minister, Angela Smith, outlining the charity's concerns about mainstreaming, Ms Smith replied that the DHSSPS was not streamlining services. That seems to indicate confusion between departments. Will the noble Baroness clarify the department's position?

The Government appear to have moved considerably from their previous commitment to the children and young people of Northern Ireland. The executive's theme of growing as a community has been replaced by three overarching aims that focus on economic competitiveness, building equality and community cohesion. But there is now no obvious commitment to children. Services for children and young people are already under-resourced and funds for family and children"s services are significantly lower than those available in England and Wales. How do we expect the most vulnerable children in society to cope with yet more cutbacks?

Lord Laird

I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness the Lord President for presenting the order. I agree with a lot of the remarks made by the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith, on use of consultants, reduction of quangos and many other topics. I wish to comment on some issues of particular concern to me. I am taking this opportunity to do so because, without devolution, one must have a forum for seeking satisfactory answers to very difficult questions.

The finance Minister Ian Pearson MP promised in July 2004 that no moneys would be left over from 2003–04. They would be moved forward to this year. Will the Minister assure us that that has taken place? I have given the noble Baroness notice of a number of the issues I shall raise, but I would still like answers to those that I have not filed with her office. Obviously, I am open to receiving those answers by post in due course.

Practical co-operation between Northern Ireland and Eire was one aspect of the collapsed Belfast agreement. When historians come to examine the causes of the collapse, perhaps they will draw lessons from the emerging, scandalous affair of property being purchased in Middletown. The Irish Government were excessively opportunistic in getting their hand in incrementally in Northern Ireland. Middletown is in County Armagh. A religious order, the St Louis Order, engages in good educational work there. Unfortunately, the order found itself in difficulties. In 2000 it wrote to the Irish Government, seemingly offering its property for sale. As a consequence, the Irish Government contacted the Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, one Martin McGuinness. He and the Irish education Minister then met the order and agreed to bale it out. In 2004, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland administration jointly purchased the property. It is envisaged that it will become a centre of excellence for children with autism. However, Dublin and Belfast are leasing back, at a nominal rent of five pence per year, the convent, the chapel and the cemetery. Five pence per year sounds bad, but I have to say that our prudent civil servants inserted a clause to allow the rent to be reviewed after a couple of years.

Government is getting into the business of being a landlord: in other words, property for investment and not development. I ask the Minister to confirm that purchasing property as an investment is contrary to government policy. As one who is dyslexic, I am very sympathetic to special educational needs. My party and I are not antagonistic to North/South practical cooperation, not least because it might allow Eire to give up its imperialist fantasies about taking over Northern Ireland. However, Middletown raises a number of other issues. First, what is the basis for this co-operation? There is no agreement on an implementation body to deal with education. However, it was envisaged that education would be an area for practical co-operation. An all-Ireland institution was never intended.

Secondly, is Middletown about the St Louis Order or autistic children? The facts, extracted like teeth from the Northern Ireland Office through parliamentary Questions, are a growing cause for concern. I have written to Mr Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the Public Accounts Select Committee, calling on him to investigate this joint purchase. I will renew my request if a general election intervenes. Did the two departments not look first at their property portfolio or at the rest of the public sector estate for suitable buildings to use as a centre for autistic children? The objective, in contrast, appears to have been to help out a religious order and the Irish Government, and only belatedly autistic children.

Thirdly, why was the agreement made in 2004? The Assembly was suspended in late 2002, and the UK and Irish Governments agreed to put the North/South implementation bodies on care and maintenance. When I think about care and maintenance, I think of naval vessels mothballed in dock. This has not happened to most of the six implementation bodies. Dublin and London went ahead and agreed a new headquarters building for one body, which sounds like the building of a new vessel. Many other bodies received increases in their budgets to carry out existing policies, but not of course the Ulster-Scots Agency. Its requested budget to carry out existing policies was cut to please the Dublin Government.

In the case of Middletown, it is impossible to see how an agreement to purchase and establish an all-Ireland education institution is consistent with the solemn undertaking of the two states at the end of 2002. Unionists never intended to give North/South co-operation legs outside the Belfast agreement. Middletown is not on care and maintenance. I and my colleagues will be asking for the closing-down of the implementation bodies and other forms of co-operation now that the Belfast agreement is over.

4.15 p.m.

I have a number of questions about the funding of the project to put to the noble Baroness. The purchase of the centre is to be funded on a 50/50 basis. What are the projections of use that formed that decision? The Department of Education paid £15,000 per month before the property was purchased to plan services and to consider refurbishment needs. Why was that, when it was in the vendor's interests to have those plans undertaken as part of the sale? You do not try to sell your house and then charge the person who is buying it a fee every time he comes in to measure the carpets.

How was the sum of £15,000 a month arrived at? A suggestion has also been made that a maintenance cost of £6,000 per month and a 15 per cent management fee have been paid. What exactly is that, and who arrived at the figures? The cost to the department is estimated at £142,000 before the property was purchased. Is that normal? Can other examples of the same system be given? Also, how was the rent of 5p a year arrived at? The department was short of funds, so where was the money found? There was a transaction cost of £50,000 in legal fees. How was that accounted for? Who selected the legal firm and on what basis? The running costs are estimated to be £2.97 million. How was that figure arrived at, and how will it be allocated between the two departments?

At an appropriate time, I will make all the information that I have about the purchase available to investigators and to the media. I refer to a letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton. I am a great friend of the noble Baroness, and I always rely heavily on her words, but I need to consider some of the things that she wrote in her letter.

In the letter, which I received today, the noble Baroness says that the Middletown Centre for Autism, is not a cross-border body". It is exactly the same as Tourism Ireland. I have plenty of material, most of it from the Dublin Government, to show that Tourism Ireland is regarded as an implementation body and as part of the agreement, or rather part of the cross-border co-operation.

The letter from the noble Baroness also says that Her Majesty's Government did not provide financial assistance to the St Louis order. Yet the documents that I have show that they provided £142,000 before the property was purchased to gain access to it. I have no difficulty with a centre for autistic children—I am pleased about it—but I should like to see placed in the Library a report showing why Middletown was picked rather than some other place. I should like to see the details that have made the building of the centre so important. It seems that building and putting the centre together was done only as a result of purchasing the property. I would have thought that that is rather unusual in government circles.

The noble Baroness also stated in her letter that the project was not being run by the North/South Ministerial Council. If so, why did it have to be endorsed at a meeting of the council held on 11 April 2002? Either it is being run by the council or it is not. So far as I can see, it has exactly the same status as Tourism Ireland.

I want to move on. Turning to the area of health, is adequate funding available for the treatment of Crohn's disease, a particularly vicious ailment that seems to be on the increase in the Province? Also, would the Minister let me have an idea of revenue allocation for health in Northern Ireland, as opposed to capital allocation? Is it keeping pace per head of population with the figure for England? Also, given the rather nasty suggestion that there might be a bird flu pandemic in this country, have sufficient stocks already been paid for and stored in Northern Ireland as opposed to there just being plans?

I agree with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, on transport. Railways in Northern Ireland have been badly underfunded over the past couple of decades. Funding per head of the population is much lower than in Scotland, for example. The cost of the roads is the same, but we do not get a railway system adequate to meet the Province's needs.

I am very impressed by the proposal to extend the Belfast to Londonderry line to Strabane and on to Letterkenny. That is worthy of consideration; it is cross-border co-operation at its best. As I understand it, such a deal would attract European money and would be partly funded by the Irish Government.

I have some specific questions. What funding is provided for disabled jobseekers? On another topic, why has funding been removed from Shorts Bombardier—there are suggestions that it has been removed—and what do the Government calculate will be the effect?

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, that we should look at funding to support victims. Why was no money paid to the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund for the current financial year? Are there plans to put the small amount of money for the Memorial Fund, £1 million, back into the budget for 2005–06? Why have those innocent victims of the troubles been left out of the financial loop? Will the Minister confirm that £1 million a year is still set aside for republican ex-prisoner groups?

I would like to take on the case of Cabra Towers Outdoor Education Centre, near Castlewellan, an excellent foundation for kids. Will the Minister write to me on the funding arrangements for Cabra. Towers in the next financial years? Have the past two years' audits of LEDU, a component of Invest Northern Ireland, been successfully concluded? There are issues about the audit figures of the past two years, to which I shall return.

Returning briefly to education, I am concerned by the suggestion that the provision of transport to controlled schools is worked out differently from that for maintained and integrated schools. It has been suggested that transport to controlled schools is paid for only if a child goes to the nearest school, while free transport is provided to any maintained or integrated school anywhere. Will the Minister confirm whether that is correct, and, if so, why?

I wish to consider funding for activities alongside the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Can the Minister confirm that £28,000 was spent on consultants Saxton, Bampfylde and Hever to find out the view of the public on both sides of the community regarding the activities of the Human Rights Commission? The consultant reported back that the perception in the Unionist community was that the Human Rights Commission had a Nationalist agenda. I could have told him that for 28p.

We must learn from the mistakes of the first human rights commission. Human rights are for everybody; they are not the plaything of the Government simply to placate Sinn Fein and other republicans. You can be an Irish republican if you want, but the only qualification for human rights is to be human, as they affect us all. On behalf of the community from which I come, I have always deprecated the concept put to me once at a human rights meeting in Belfast, when somebody said, "Human rights? This has nothing to do with you; you are a Unionist". That is what I have fought against for years and will continue to fight against. I do not have a lot of confidence in the Civil Service's ability to produce a human rights commission that will be any better than what we had.

I have discussed previously the cross-border body Waterways Ireland but am not satisfied—I will probably not be satisfied on this occasion either. Two reports on risk assessment and customer service training in Waterways Ireland took place between May 2004 and early 2005. It was concluded that there was a risk of significant damage to Waterways Ireland if many issues were not dealt with.

One of the reports said that a major issue would inevitably be the lack of fairness in promotion and employment exhibited by Waterways Ireland. It said: Waterways Ireland is beset with serious and dysfunctional management problems and has a serious lack of morale". A recent report on bullying and harassment has not yet been published. Will the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council confirm that it was indicated that the director of corporate services was bullied by the chief executive? It is known throughout the organisation, and the media know it. Why was the director of corporate services dismissed? I believe that he was dismissed incorrectly.

An internal e-mail from Waterways Ireland of 29 January 2003 says: Mr Brian Mc Taggart has formally accepted the post of director of corporate services and we are pleased to take this opportunity to wish him well for the future". He has his job. Why was the man who was bullied dismissed, while the bully is still there? What does that say to every tin-pot dictator in every other quango or organisation? It says, "Let's get rid of the guys who claim they were bullied and keep the guy who did the bullying".

I am also concerned about staff selection and promotion in Waterways Ireland. I have talked several times about the lack of fairness in the appointment of the director of marketing and communications. As I see it, his appointment contravenes the staffing principles of North/South implementation bodies as laid out in a document that says: Staff can only be seconded if they are identified as key to the successful establishment of a body, or they can be appointed if the post is offered by competitive competition". So far as I know, the gentleman appointed, whom I have named before, was not involved in Waterways Ireland before he was seconded to the organisation. I ask the Minister to tell me what job he had. He was a communications and marketing gentleman; there are many of them about. Why was he selected? That contravenes the religious and other forms of legislation banning discrimination in employment in Northern Ireland.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Perhaps I could ask him to relate these interests, which are clearly of great concern to him, to the order on the table. That would help me to follow his line of argument.

Lord Laird

I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. Fortunately, I am near the end of my remarks but I am unable to point out the exact category, except that they are all government functions funded by the Government; therefore, one must assume that I am entitled to raise them at this point. As there appears to be no one else to raise these matters at Stormont, this is important.

The noble Baroness, in her letter, which I was pleased to receive and delighted to read, denied that there is a general view in the community in Northern Ireland that the implementation bodies act on behalf of the Dublin Government. Yet I say that they do. I can give a long list of experiences: the budget 2003 language bodies, the budget 2004 language bodies, the Official Languages Act, the removal in Donegal of the Irish language section and the support for Waterways Ireland, to name but a few. All of those were not approved. The Northern Ireland Civil Service was not consulted and, indeed, in some cases was extremely angry about it. Still, when hardy came to hardy, it wished to support the Dublin Government.

This is all very unsatisfactory. Those of us who supported the Belfast agreement and wished to put our best foot forward, thinking that there was a new dispensation, find that time and again we are simply allowing Dublin to interfere in the affairs of Northern Ireland far beyond that to which we signed up in the Belfast agreement.

These issues have to be dealt with. I look forward to receiving any information from the Minister. I have a number of documents that refer to cases on which I have asked questions. and the civil servants involved have e-mailed each other with very nice Jesuitical-type remarks. indicating that I am right, but they supply the Minister with other information.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

This budget takes me back to the halcyon days when I was a county councillor and chaired a police authority. I had lots of budgets to look at. I have a very simplistic approach to budgets: either I understand them or I do not. Unlike my noble friend Lord Shutt, who has made it his lifetime's work to understand budgets—sad though that may be, I am grateful to him—I find this one of the most difficult budget books to understand.

One solution may be for the Northern Ireland Assembly to scrutinise the budget thoroughly and then advise us on it. That is one suggestion. My noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton has urged the Government to do that on many occasions. Of course, we believe that that might not be agreeable to the Government, so perhaps we must have a running scrutiny, by your Lordships, throughout the year. Otherwise, no one will understand the complexities of this document. Looking roughly at the document, I have a simplistic question on which the Minister may be able to help me. If a department—say, the fire service—says that it wants something, does it receive that automatically? What scrutiny is carried out on the requirement and who deals with that? I am at a loss to understand where the scrutiny process goes.

I have particular interest in European matters. I looked on page 128 of the budget at the figures for the special EU programmes body, the ERDF, the EU programme for peace and reconciliation, the EU community initiatives and I totalled them up to about £23 million. That is a good amount of money. But I understand that EU moneys do not always flow to the places intended as quickly as they might. That happens all over the place. But are we to be told that the money on all those projects is flowing well and is up to speed? How much is to be claimed from those programmes to flow after 1 April this year? How much is still left to go into the whole EU programme that is not being spent and how quickly will it be taken up? I give notice that, from now on, I shall take a very great interest in that.

Lord Glentoran

I have one technical question. Schedule I to the order, two-thirds of the way down the first paragraph on the first page, refers to the, European Union Common Fisheries Policy and local fisheries policy, support operation of the Loughs Agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, protection and conservation". First, I declare an interest as a commissioner of the Irish Lights Commission. Secondly, I can assure your Lordships that the Irish Lights Commission has never formed a part of this, although it was due to, and has never had any funding from the British Government through these channels. It is a very technical problem, as officials will discover if they delve into it, but for the purposes of this budget, it could be, in detail, misleading. Perhaps the Irish Lights Commission should remain, but in brackets or with a note saying that it has never received funding from the Northern Ireland budget directly.

Baroness Amos

I thank noble Lords for the points that they have raised and shall also deal with some of the general points raised before dealing with the specifics. I entirely appreciate the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Shutt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, about the process for considering the budget. Noble Lords have made that point on a number of occasions, not only in Grand Committee, but also in the Chamber.

My answer is the same: we are looking at ways in which we can improve not only the process of consultation, but also the process of consideration of these detailed matters. I entirely appreciate the frustration felt by noble Lords, but it is important that we try to get the matter right. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, talked of the possibility of pre-scrutiny and the matter then coming to the Westminster Parliament. There is a technicality in relation to that. Under the 1998 Act the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot convene to consider or to debate legislation that has been laid at Westminster.

While I recognise that a number of very good suggestions have been made by noble Lords, sometimes there are difficulties in implementing the detail of them, which is why we have not managed to return with suggestions up until this point.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. What about my second suggestion—perhaps she was coming to that—about a running, rolling scrutiny?

Baroness Amos

I was coming to that. I of course cannot agree it, but it is a suggestion which I need to consider with colleagues and Ministers in the other place who are dealing with Northern Ireland business, as well as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I will endeavour to be as helpful as I can on this matter, because I recognise and appreciate the degree of frustration.

Perhaps I may start with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, about the importance of moving away from an over-reliance on the public sector to a greater reliance on the private sector by increasing, and creating the right kind of, investment in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, spoke about the importance of developing an enterprise culture.

The Government's recently published economic vision acknowledges that the private sector needs to play a more proactive role in wealth generation. The vision seeks to promote innovation, skills enhancement, infrastructure development and entrepreneurship. Policies targeted at these areas will facilitate private sector economic activity in Northern Ireland, thereby increasing its share of gross value added. We see the public sector's role as being to facilitate private sector economic activity, and when I come on to talk about some of the points about tourism in Northern Ireland, we will begin to see that there have been very positive developments with respect to wealth creation in Northern Ireland.

In talking about the 45 per cent that we are allocating to the vote on account, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, asked me whether I knew more than he did about a possible return to devolution. The answer to that is "no". I do not have any inside information, but we have taken the prudent step of providing for the full costs of a functioning Assembly for 2005–06. Of course, we all hope that that will be the case, but we also all recognise the many hurdles in the way. If that is not the case, the funds will be reallocated to other priority areas.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, too, asked for a commitment with respect to any underspend. No money will be returned to the Treasury as a consequence of underspending by Northern Ireland departments. All unspent money will be carried forward for use in subsequent years in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, asked about the maintenance of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. It is a fully fledged Northern Ireland department in its own right, with a range of responsibilities to be carried out whether or not the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended. That is why it is included in the budget. I can write to the noble Lord to amplify on that if he wishes it.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was very worried about efficiency measures and greater efficiency gains in the public administration. The review of public administration report is to be published for consultation on 22 March, so there is not too long to wait. It would be wrong for me to pre-empt the consultation process, and it would have been wrong to pre-empt it by including firm proposals in the budget document, but we will fully integrate any recommendations from that review into future budget processes.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked also about administrative costs. The previous increase in Civil Service numbers from 2000 was largely driven by devolution and the new structures to support it. Those structures remain and the planned reduction reflects the desire for greater efficiency, but we could not reduce the numbers without significant structural change. We hope that we can move back to a devolved Assembly and then we can look again at the structures required to underpin that.

The noble Lord expressed concern about the budget for library services. The resource budget for libraries will increase by £2.3 million in 2005–06 and £2 million in each of the following years. This represents an increase of 10 per cent over the 2004–05 budget. The education and library boards are carrying out a review of their library services and estate to improve and modernise service provision so as to meet the needs of individuals, groups and communities and to take account of planned resources.

The need for libraries and the range of services provided through them is evolving. As we all know, with more people using the Internet, libraries are now providing a wider range of resources in order to meet people's different access requirements. It is important to consider the pattern of library provision in each area in the light of modern demands made on library services.

The noble Lord also raised the level of sickness absence in the Civil Service. We are concerned about the costs. Across the 11 Northern Ireland departments, the cost of absence through sickness was £26 million for 2003–04, making an average of 15.5 days per person, which is very high. Managing attendance is now a key priority within Northern Ireland departments and various management controls are being put in place to ensure that policies and procedures are being rigorously implemented and effectively monitored.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, also spoke with some passion about planning processes. It is important to look at the problems in planning in the context of the rise in the number of valid planning applications. In 2003–04, the total was 33,000, marking an increase of just under 20 per cent on the previous year. This year has seen a further increase of 12.3 per cent over the corresponding period last year. This has affected the ability to deliver targets set by Ministers and has caused delays in processing. However, we think that the current work under way to modernise planning processes which aims to implement a new and comprehensive e-planning solution will speed up and improve transparency. I take entirely the noble Lord's point about the importance of setting challenging targets, but we need to look at those against the rise in the number of applications being submitted year on year.

The noble Lord also asked a series of questions on education provision and the cost of the new post-primary arrangements. A sum of £24.7 million is being made available over the next three years for the implementation of the new arrangements for post-primary education. These arrangements are over and above the costs relating to proposals for the development of the schools estate. In determining the allocation of resources, the focus will be on providing the best possible post-primary arrangements for all children.

On the question of aspects of education efficiency, the efficiencies detailed in the Department of Education's efficiency technical note are key to helping the education service achieve its objectives by delivering more and better outputs. The Department of Education is committed to achieving the published efficiency gains and work is progressing to ensure that the steps to deliver them are integrated into its delivery programmes.

On the issue of the use of consultants, which was first raised by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, and then endorsed heartily by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, recent DFP guidance to departments stresses the need to employ external consultants only when it represents value for money. While I acknowledge that noble Lords have expressed their concerns about this in the past, let us not forget that external consultants bring specialist expertise to departments where it would not be cost-effective to employ such staff within the Civil Service on a permanent and ongoing basis.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, also raised the question of the size of the underspend. I assure the noble Lord that much of the underspend—the £400 million—reflects delays in major capital programmes in which some slippage is almost inevitable. In some cases, we also planned to carry forward some spending from 2003–04 to subsequent years to address pressures that, we knew, would arise at certain points in the cycle.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, asked whether we could present the figures in a different way. I did not entirely understand every point that the noble Lord made, but I will do my best to address some of the specific ones.

There was a point about the Barnett formula figure. The resources allocated to Northern Ireland under the Barnett formula are included in the departmental expenditure limit total figure. The figure is not separately identified because it is set only in spending reviews and is defined as an incremental increase on previous Northern Ireland allocations. The Barnett figure is the local population share of English comparable spending increases. I hope that that answers the question raised by the noble Lord. Please nod; I did my best.

I said that I would return to the issue of tourism. Total spending on tourism amounts to less than £30 million. That should be viewed in the context of a total revenue from tourism of over £300 million in 2004. There are about 50,000 people employed in that sector. It is a 5 per cent real increase on the figure for 2003. Visitor numbers for 2004 are predicted to increase by 6 per cent on 2003 and exceed 2 million for the first time. The number of holiday visitors increased by 14 per cent compared to 2003, but the figure remains well below the record number achieved in 1995. We think that that demonstrates the need for continued funding and, in the context of the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith of Clifton, about encouraging an enterprise culture in Northern Ireland, we see scope for further development in that area.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, referred to the Civic Forum. The Civic Forum has provided valuable input to government policy formulation during its short life. The money spent consulting civil society is, we think, well spent. Following the suspension of the Northern Ireland political institutions on 15 October 2002, the legislation under which the Civic Forum was funded ceased to have effect. Although the Civic Forum itself was not suspended, the administrative support had to be withdrawn. The chair was no longer paid, and the forum's members no longer received travelling expenses. The Civic Forum therefore effectively ceased to operate at that point. Any decision to allow the Civic Forum to resume would depend on there being political support. I have to report to noble Lords that there is no political consensus on the matter at present.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, also raised the issue of funding for victims' and survivors' groups. The current core funding scheme for victims' and survivors' groups, which was due to end on 31 March this year, is to be extended for a further year, until 31 March 2006. Approximately £1.8 million will be allocated to cover that extended period, enabling groups to continue their important work.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, raised the issue of funding for children. Project funding for the Children's Fund remains ring-fenced and has not been diverted to other expenditure priorities.

The Government support a wide range of children's services. Other public expenditure allocation specifically for children and young people includes funding for children's residential care, foster care and child protection. For example, £8 million per annum is allocated to voluntary bodies including childcare grants, family fund grants and family policy grants. There is also the £8.8 million Sure Start programme which targets children in areas with high levels of disadvantage and £1.6 million per annum for early-years development. Other substantial amounts are already contained within mainstream budgets for the benefit of children and young people; for example, for residential care, foster care, autism and special needs.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, asked me a number of questions. I shall seek to address the questions raised on Middletown, transport and employment for disabled people. I hope he will forgive me if I write to him on some of the more detailed points that he raised.

The noble Lord asked me whether purchasing property as an investment is against government policy. I understand that there is no specific policy on that, but it is not something that the Government generally do. The Middletown site was purchased on the sole basis of its suitability as a site for a centre of excellence for young people with autism. I understand that it does not breach the care and maintenance policy. The Executive agreed to it in 2001. before suspension, and legal complications prevented the site purchase until 2004.

I can only repeat the points made in the letter from my noble friend Lady Farrington. No cross-border body was established in respect of the Middletown centre. The site was purchased by the Middletown Centre of Autism Holdings Limited. The Government did not provide financial assistance to the St Louis Order. The agreed purchase price of the property was within the valuation range recommended by the Valuation and Lands Agency. The task group on autism highlighted the need for improved educational services for autism, including better multi-agency and multi-disciplinary working. We believe that the location of the centre is eminently suitable to meet the need. The lease-back arrangement relates solely to part of the site, which is not to be refurbished in the first phase.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Laird, on his ingenuity in managing to include a question on the Ulster-Scots Agency in his questions on Middletown.

Lord Laird

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Before she leaves the Middletown matter, the holding company to which the noble Baroness refers is jointly owned by the two education departments with two directors from either side. It is not dissimilar to Tourism Ireland which is regarded as a cross-border body. I am not saying that this is an implementation body; I am saying that it is a cross-border body. Why was £142,000 supplied to the order before the place was purchased? To me that seems very much like government supporting the order. When selling a house, one does not take a rent off those who are buying the house every time they want to check the plans and want to look at the property and carry out survey work. I have never heard of that before. Perhaps the Minister can tell me whether that is standard practice in government.

How was the £15,000 worked out? How was the management fee worked out? How was the £6,000 a month worked out and how was the 5p a year rent back for the chapel, the cemetery and the convent worked out? Was that the market rate?

5 p.m.

Baroness Amos

I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, on these points, but perhaps I may pick up on the specific figure of £15,000 which he raised. This was a notional figure, advised by the Valuation and Lands Agency, which incorporated an estimate of what was required to maintain the value of the asset.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, raised a series of other points about the legal fees; the selection of the legal board; the 50-50 arrangements; as well as a number of other points. I shall write to him on those matters and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

I turn to the transport strategy and the railways. Good progress is being made on the regional transport strategy, which is being implemented mainly through three transport plans. In November 2004, the Department for Regional Development published a Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan. This month, DRD will publish its plan for Northern Ireland's regional strategic transport network, and the department expects to complete work on a draft sub-regional transport plan by March 2006. The budget announcement on 20 December last year made provision for the development of the core railway network in line with the funding estimates in the report of the railways review group and for an element of renewal of the lesser-used lines as presented in Option 2 of the RRG report. The level of funding will allow services on the lesser-used lines to be maintained.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, asked also about employment programmes for disabled people. The Department for Employment and Learning has secured additional resources to allow it to develop a range of initiatives as part of wider welfare reform. These will include additional provision for schemes for people with disabilities. The employment support and access-to-work programmes are making new commitments to maximise the support available.

I turn to the health questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laird. The 2005–06 revenue allocation to health is 9.5 per cent, which is significantly more than the Barnett formula would have allocated to Northern Ireland. Per capita health spending in Northern Ireland is 12 per cent higher than in England.

On the point about bird flu, the Chief Medical Officer in Northern Ireland continues to monitor developments in Asia. Stocks are maintained to ensure coverage for those who are most vulnerable and for key workers.

On the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, about funding of ex-prisoner groups and victims' groups, no department or funding body is specifically responsible for funding ex-prisoner organisations. Those groups may apply for funding from any programme or scheme where they satisfy the relevant eligibility criteria. Our records show that, from April 1998 until the end of March 2004, public funding totalling almost £28 million has been paid to those organisations which are known to be involved in supporting victims and survivors, and around £17 million has been paid to organisations which provide assistance to ex-prisoners.

On the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, about education and transport to controlled, maintained and integrated schools, I am not aware of any difference in treatment. If I may, I will come back to the noble Lord on that. If the noble Lord has any further information or evidence that would help me in addressing these points, I would welcome it.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, has raised with me on many occasions through Written Questions the allegations of bullying and harassment at Waterways Ireland. Discussions are ongoing between the two sponsor departments and the chief executive of Waterways Ireland on the recommendations of a report by independent investigators on allegations made by a member of staff and involving the chief executive. Allegations made collectively by 20 members of staff at Waterways Ireland are being dealt with under internal procedures.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, asked about the allocations to departments and European Union spending. During suspension, all allocations to Northern Ireland departments are made by the Secretary of State on the basis of recommendations that are put to him by his ministerial colleagues and the Minister with responsibility for finance.

Decisions take into account the amount of available resources and spending priorities, so I imagine that the system works by ensuring that Ministers with specific theme responsibilities will make a case. The Minister with responsibility for finance and the Secretary of State then look at those against the priorities that have been established for Northern Ireland.

On the question of European Union spending, I am afraid that I am unable to provide details of levels of EU underspend, but I can give an assurance that any underspend will be carried forward and spent within Northern Ireland by the end of 2008.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

I wonder if the noble Baroness could give me a slightly more detailed, written response explaining what is happening and where the funds are going. I would be most grateful.

Baroness Amos

I would be happy to provide that.

On the final point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, on the Irish Lights Commission, I have noted his comments on the presentation in the estimates and I will ensure that officials consider the matter, particularly in respect of future presentations.

I hope that I have addressed all the concerns raised, but if I have not, I shall, of course, write to noble Lords.

Lord Smith of Clifton

We appreciate the fact that the Minister appreciates our frustration, and that is welcome. On behalf of my colleagues and, I am sure, other noble Lords, perhaps I may say that this has been a long and very wide-ranging discussion. The summing up given by the Minister is highly commendable. We thank her for it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.