What the total cost of the Northern Ireland Assembly has been since its suspension in October 2002; and if he will make a statement.
The cost of maintaining the Northern Ireland Assembly since suspension in October 2002 until
Can the Minister explain the moral justification for continuing to squander £2 million per month on a phantom Assembly at Stormont?
It is important to recognise that the Assembly machinery must be maintained for when devolution is restored. As a Government we carefully monitor the situation. The number of Assembly staff has been reduced from 403 to 292, and about 40 per cent. of those have been fully or partially redeployed. We have saved about £15 million during the present financial year by allowing staff to go to work for other departments. We will continue to keep these matters under review.
Rather than continuing the phantom, empty, inoperative Assembly, should not the Government move ahead and give us accountable government by speeding up local government reform, getting rid of the health and education quangos and giving us a tier of local administration on top of Government, similar to the way in which England and Wales are governed?
I agree that it is important that we move forward with the review of public administration, which the people of Northern Ireland clearly want to see. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have been having discussions with a range of political parties during recent months, and I will continue to do so. We are just finishing some work on local identity, and I hope to have a firm proposals paper ready for consultation either at the end of February or early in March, which I hope will fully address the issues that he rightly raised.