Review of Public Administration
I thank the Member for his question. I am inclined to refer you to the Hansard report of last week. He has it, and I am sure that if he has it, he has read it. If he has read it, I do not know how the Member could have any more questions, given the scale of the debate. Then again, the DUP did not participate in the debate last week, so it will, no doubt, have many questions to ask this week.
The Member asked for an update. Last week, the Local Government (Boundaries) Order was approved in the Chamber. As a consequence, responsibility for the appointment of a commissioner for district electoral areas (DEAs) has now passed to the British Government, and that work will be taken forward. In the autumn, a reorganisation Bill will be tabled in the Assembly, which will take forward a lot of the strategic detail of the RPA initiative.
At the same time, work is ongoing to build up subordinate legislation, including legislation that will put into effect the governance and ethics regimes that are necessary for good government in local councils. In the past two weeks, we have seen examples of where there has not been good government in local councils. The consequence was that, last Friday afternoon, I wrote to all party leaders in Northern Ireland, advising them of the Executive’s commitment on ethics and governance and reminding them of obligations in respect of governance and ethics. I asked them to address those issues in their political parties. It would be an unusual step for a public body to take a complaint against another public body, but, with the help of the departmental solicitor’s office (DSO), I am looking at tabling a complaint to the Equality Commission about what has happened in a number of councils recently.
Sydney Anderson (DUP)
Will the Minister be looking at the record of those who seek high positions in councils and the way that they carry on their business? Many times, in fact, they add insult to unionist people in borough councils and district councils.
During and after last week’s debate, I said that I have some understanding of the point that Mr Anderson has just made. There are times and places in our society in which there are individuals, if not groupings, in councils who behave in a way that puts it in people’s faces, winds them up and creates mischief, if not to hurt and cause pain. In that way, I understand what Mr Anderson is saying. However, in the previous mandate, the Executive agreed that d’Hondt, Sainte-Laguë or another mechanism would prevail as the method for election to public positions in councils in the context of RPA. All parties agreed that there should be proportionality in allocating all positions in councils committees and so on and so forth. If that is the principle that people have endorsed for 2015, it should be the principle that applies in 2012.
There is tension in a very small number of places between those who cling to the past and those who advocate the new order of politics, for all of its difficulties, which I do not discount. In human terms this is not easy, but in political terms the right position is quite clear. That is why I wrote to all of the leaders of the political parties, and that is why, later this afternoon, I will discuss with the DSO as to whether we will take a complaint to the Equality Commission.
Anna Lo (Alliance)
During last week’s debate on the Local Government (Boundaries) Order, the Minister mentioned putting the voluntary transition committees onto a statutory footing. Will he outline the steps he will take and the timetable that will be involved?
I thank the Member for her question. I agree that something based in statute is better than something not based in statute, because it creates certainty and avoids doubt. Therefore, I will introduce proposals that, hopefully, will be passed by the Assembly through subordinate legislation in this calendar year to make the voluntary transition committees statutory.
That is what people want and it is good governance and a good outcome given my responsibility. However, let no one be unsure: it will be at least six months before that happens, and six months is a big part of the next three years in the rolling out of RPA. Although, as I have said, I do not agree with the 11-council outcome — I believe that 15 was a better model when it comes to up-front costs, up-front management, local identity and character — I will rigorously pursue local government reorganisation, even in the image of 11. However, given that six months of hard and good work can be done, I am looking to the voluntary transition committees to take forward that work. I am not relying on the explanation that a committee is not statutory to put in doubt or to delay the work of that committee.
Tom Elliott (UUP)
Given the Minister’s response to Mr Anderson, I foresee some interesting legislation coming to the House in the not-too-distant future. To get back to local government reform, why has the Minister not yet put a business case to the Executive to help fund the transition of local government reform and the rate convergence?
I thank the Member; there will be interesting legislation, but the previous Executive and all parties to it endorsed that interesting legislation. They endorsed a model that would ensure that the elected positions and the distribution of committee places in local councils under RPA would reflect proportionality principles. So, the forthcoming legislation may be “interesting”, but it was endorsed by parties around the Executive table, and whatever difficulties Mr Anderson indicated, I hope that that will prevail. Late last year, the Executive decided on the 11-council model for local government reorganisation, and, arising from that decision, the business case is being updated. On the far side of the summer, the details of that business case will become known.
As I said last week, I would, rightly, get cold comfort if I were charge into Sammy Wilson’s office and say, “Will you give me £50 million for RPA”? That is because your argument has to be based on a business case, and that business case is currently being updated. I remind you that people put up their hands in this Chamber in March 2011, when there was no budget cover whatsoever for RPA. That said, as Members will be aware from last week’s debate, I have put in a June monitoring bid of £2·3 million, of which £200,000 would go to each cluster of councils to enable them to take forward change management in the transition from 26 councils to 11, with £100,000 for some pump-priming work on community planning, which is one of the big functions that will transfer. So, independent of there being no budget cover and of the business case being updated, I am already looking for money from my Executive colleagues, and I hope that that will be endorsed by all parties around the Executive table.
Cathal Boylan (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Here, at last. I thank the Minister for his response, but, in a six-hour debate last week, he intimated his support for severance payments to sitting councillors. How does he foresee meeting that? Also, the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report indicated that reform would cost £118 million; does he believe that those figures would reflect the cost today?
The updated business case will definitively answer the latter question. However, if the Member is saying that putting the up-front costs of reorganisation at £118 million was putting them on the high side; I think that it was. I would be surprised if, on the far side of the updated business case, they were not put somewhat lower.
I hope that all Members will endorse the principle of severance payments for councillors. Without rehearsing all the arguments, people have, with virtually no income, served citizens of the North for many years. They have been great public servants during the years of terror, state conflict and great turbulence, when it was not easy. I believe that, as they depart the public stage, they should be given some recognition.
I want to point out, without prejudice to the updated business case or to my June monitoring bid, that the Executive said in the previous mandate and in this mandate, when all Ministers were round the table, that the cost of RPA would not come from Executive central funds. They said that there would be a self-financing business case for the funding of RPA through various means, not Executive funds. That is the situation that prevails and would prevail in the event of a councillor severance scheme. In the fullness of time, I will table regulations in the House to put that into effect, and those will govern that matter as well. However, on the far side of the business case and the June monitoring round, we will see where I can find good reason, good money and good political support to help councils through what will not be an easy process.