The consultative paper on local government recently published by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland asks for comments on compulsory competitive tendering for the following district council activities: refuse collection and street cleaning, cleaning of buildings, grounds maintenance, vehicle maintenance, catering services and recreation and leisure services. Some construction and maintenance work may, in certain circumstances, also be put out to tender.
Within the past hour I have re-read the paper, just to ensure that my eyes did not betray me on the first occasion. Councils in Northern Ireland look after the burial of the dead when the churches do not look after it. Councils look after about half the burials in Northern Ireland. Their two other main functions are refuse collection and recreation. If those functions are privatised, what will be the point of having councils—or do the Government intend to givem them increased powers in some form or another?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman's eyes do not deceive him on one issue. They certainly deceive him on the other issue. We are not talking about privatisation but about competitive tendering. It is a quite different matter. It may well be that large numbers of council activities will remain with the present staff once they have been looked into. But it is right that ratepayers should know that they are paying the proper price for the services that they get.
Before the Minister considers measures to encourage financial prudence in local government, will he consider the record of his own Department? In the past seven years the district rate of Castlereagh borough council has increased by only 17 per cent. whereas his Department's regional rate has increased by 53 per cent. Perhaps he should get his act in order first.
The Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland does not set the regional rate in Northern Ireland. It is set by the Department of Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland. The House should have the correct facts. Of course, all Government spending must be examined most rigorously and we must ensure that the taxpayer gets the best possible value for money.
We shall certainly consider whether we can privatise the water service in Northern Ireland, although the circumstances and the way in which water is delivered in Northern Ireland is different from the rest of the United Kingdom.
While privatisation is important, does my hon. Friend agree that it is equally important that additional functions are devolved to the district councils to give them extra teeth and a more constructive role? Does the noble Lord agree with me that there has been disappointment since the Anglo-Irish Agreement in terms of the number of functions—[Interruption.]