HL Deb 05 December 2002 vol 641 cc1273-7

1.35 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th November be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in the name of my noble and learned friend the Lord Privy Seal. The order will amend the existing legislation relating to the operation of local government in Northern Ireland. It will remove ambiguity and complexity from existing provisions for funding district councils and strengthen their powers and responsibilities in the areas of economic development and community safety.

I propose to comment briefly on the order. I draw noble Lords' attention to the principal provision. The main purpose of the order is to put in place a new methodology for the distribution of the resources element of general grant payable to district councils. It would also extend the existing economic development powers and introduce new discretionary community safety provisions for councils.

Articles 3 to 7 deal with the payment of grants to district councils. Article 4 is an enabling power for the making of regulations to set out the formula for determining the amount of the resources element of the general grant payable to district councils. The existing statutory formula is complex and frequently results in wide variations year-on-year, making effective long-term financial planning difficult for councils. The new methodology would be simpler and would incorporate new factors, taking account of the relative socio-economic disadvantage between districts, in accordance with new targeting social need principles. It would also provide for regular payments to facilitate good financial planning.

Article 8 would extend the powers to promote economic development, allowing a broader range of activities, including the provision of sites and the acquisition of land for economic development. Also, the article would repeal the existing time limit on expenditure by district councils for that purpose.

Article 9 provides powers to district councils to engage, if they so wish, in community safety activity through voluntary community safety partnerships. Such partnerships are to be established under a community safety strategy devised by the Secretary of State.

Extensive consultation has taken place on all those matters and district councils in Northern Ireland generally accept the proposed changes. In particular, there has been overwhelming support for the new economic development and community safety powers.

Your Lordships may be aware that the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2002 is almost identical to the Bill that was being debated by the Northern Ireland Assembly prior to its suspension. It was considered by the Assembly's Environment Committee, which subsequently published a report on its findings. Concerns raised by the Environment Committee and suggested amendments have been addressed in the order. The Environment Committee was content that its recommendations would be taken on board and did not propose to bring forward any further changes. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th November be approved.—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I shall be considerably briefer on this order than I had intended to be. One point that I wish to make is that I believe this is a very—and I am not talking about today's timing and the rush there is now—unsatisfactory way of ruling Northern Ireland. I have mentioned this matter outside the Chamber to my Chief Whip and to the Government Chief Whip, and I know it is the view of my colleagues in another place. We cannot continue running Northern Ireland, in the absence of the Assembly, by a series of orders taken one after the other without proper and due scrutiny. I must ask the Government to examine a means whereby we can have pre-legislative scrutiny of some of these orders.

This order is a classic example of what is required. It is a significant order, altering the rules and regulations for 26 local authorities. It sets up orders and ways and means of adjusting the financing from one local authority to another and allowing them to raise funds for a great number of different things. I am sure that had this debate taken place in Stormont, it would have been contentious and would have lasted a considerable amount of time. I see the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, nodding in agreement with me.

That is just one example. There are nine orders outstanding at the moment that concern the management of Northern Ireland, six of which will be taken after the Second Reading of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill. I was asked whether I was prepared for that to happen. I confess that I said, "Yes", but I believe that probably nearly every one of those orders deserves a separate debate of about one hour each in the form of an Unstarred Question. This method of pushing loads of orders through—there will be more coming until the Northern Ireland political situation changes—is quite wrong. I must ask the Government in the strongest possible words to look into this matter and to make sure that some form of democratic process is put in place so that we can properly scrutinise and examine orders which would be debated in full were they in Stormont.

In principle, I have always believed that the right place for the management of Northern Ireland and for parties and political tribes to work, to get together, and to make matters work is at a local level. I believe that there should be a significant reorganisation of local government. The number of local authorities should be significantly reduced and the next stage, if we do not quickly get the Assembly back working properly, should be to devolve more power to fewer local authorities and to make it work in the villages and in the towns. Having said that, I support this order.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I associate these Benches with the remarks by the noble Lords, Lord Maginnis and Lord Glentoran. We are the guardians of Stormont during its suspension. We must not let these orders go through on the nod; we must contrive some way to debate these orders properly because, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, says, there are many more coming along.

We welcome the rationalisation of the grant provisions and finances to local authorities, in particular, the extension in local government powers with regard to economic development. This is the first time in my living memory that a government have extended the powers of local government instead of taking them away. We support the orders.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

My Lords, I first acknowledge and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, for her response to the earlier order.

Anyone who wears a local government hat, as I first did over 21 years ago and continue so to do. will welcome this order. But I regret that it has to be dealt with here instead of in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hope that it will not be long before that forum is up and running again.

Local government has, particularly since the mid to late 1980s, been a stabilising influence in Northern Ireland. Extending the responsibilities of local government has increasingly benefited our communities.

The power devolved to councils in relation to economic development, which is dealt with at Article 8, has been a successful innovation during the past decade. I welcome the extension of that provision at Article (8)(2)(b) to allow councils to acquire, hold and develop land for that purpose.

A careful and considered approach will have to be adopted in implementing this function so that small local government bodies are not overstretched financially, or in respect of their ability to cope with a very specialised discipline, and I would hope that the department and Invest Northern Ireland would be sympathetic and co-operative in this area.

The Assembly when it resumes its functions will have to grapple with how 27 local government bodies can be reduced to a smaller number of more economically viable units if this example of devolved responsibility is to work effectively.

I welcome the way in which the general grant element has been dealt with and the process modified to more equitably facilitate less well-off councils. The new three-year provision is certainly welcome in so far as it better allows forward planning to take place.

I hope that, as has happened this year and in previous years, when the general grant element was dealt with on an annual basis and not quantified until the last minute, the new three-year assessment will permit earlier notification to councils of their entitlement.

Finally, Article 9(2) states: The Department may by order confer or impose on district councils other functions … I say no more than that I sincerely hope that the powers of district councils in relation to community safety councils will be handled sensitively and that district councils will be given time to build up trust on this front before the department "imposes" anything on them.

I implore direct rule ministers to recognise that to irritate political sensitivities in this area could create the opposite effect to what is intended. I believe that consultation, rather than imposition should—indeed must—be the methodology employed in this initiative. I support the order.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, the noble Baroness was kind enough to reassure me that this order did not concern the DPPs. For that I thank her. I therefore have nothing further to say, except that I strongly support the views of my noble friend Lord Glentoran and the noble Lord, Lord Smith, that while we are in direct rule, we need to devote more time than this to these issues.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. I. too, share the background of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis; I was in local government for a period of 24 years until 1997. I note the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. Of course we all hope that the need for Westminster to make decisions will last for a short time only.

I note noble Lords' welcome for the ability for future planning. At the moment there is no intention and there are no plans to impose on Northern Ireland the functions about which the noble Lord expressed concern. I, too, welcome the fact that this is an extension of powers to local government. If there are any points raised which I have failed to answer, I shall of course write to noble Lords.

On Question, Motion agreed to.