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Strategic Investment and Regeneration of Sites (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

– in the House of Lords at 3:40 pm on 11th February 2003.

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Votes in this debate

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, This is the first illustration that we have had of the procedure to deal with Northern Ireland legislative matters. We had a full discussion of these matters yesterday in the Moses Room. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th January be approved.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Liberal Democrat

rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert "but this House regrets the omission of representatives from both the business and community sectors on the proposed strategic investment board who would ensure that the board would be a model of social partnership and would reflect the need to involve key stakeholders as called for in the report of the PPP working group review of opportunities for public private partnerships in Northern Ireland".

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in proposing the amendment standing in my name, it should be emphasised at the outset that it is in no sense a wrecking amendment. Indeed, its aim is to strengthen the order. As I said yesterday in Grand Committee, the proposed strategic investment board will have a wide and as yet unspecified remit. It will be appointed by and solely responsible to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Again, its composition is not specified in the order.

After the Grand Committee, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal kindly wrote to me fleshing out in more detail what the Government have in mind. The letter states:

"The precise composition of the SIB is still under consideration. A small expert board is the most efficient option . . . The Board will bring a strategic and highly innovative approach to managing and financing the infrastructure programme right across all Depts. It will deal with the new source of borrowing, and also make the best use of private finance through Public Private Partnerships to meet local needs".

It continues:

"The early PPP pathfinder projects have demonstrated the need for ensuring effective management procedures for the procurement process".

You can say that again. The record of the PPPs is chequered. Some procurements appear to have been in the public interest and give good value for money; but many more have been proven not to have been. Government capacity, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the UK, is still too poor to guarantee the best procurement of PPP projects. The cleverest experts, of course, are those of the tenderers for such projects. They are past masters at ripping off the public purse. That is why the amendment draws attention to the need to have local community and business representation on the board of the SIB to keep a common-sense eye on proceedings. The board needs some non-executive directors with that perspective. Experts need close scrutiny in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere—as the De Lorean episode illustrated vividly and is still remembered in Northern Ireland.

The Government intend to have an advisory council alongside the SIB to bring in wider business, trade union and community viewpoints. Such advisory bodies are all very well and, successfully run, they can be useful, but they are not a substitute for places on the board of the SIB. That is not just my personal view. The earlier PPP working party in Northern Ireland forcefully suggested that business and voluntary groups should be involved in strategic policy making. The SIB is, above all, concerned with strategic policy planning.

Northern Ireland is a small place where the bush telegraph is as quick as any piece of information technology. Operational decisions made by "a small expert board" will be rapidly transmitted to the outside world and when, weeks later, they are reviewed by an advisory board the seeds of disgruntlement may well have been sown; and, in any case, it will be too late to influence decisions. Have an advisory board by all means, but make things smoother by having direct local business and voluntary sector acumen available to the board during its deliberations and crucial decision making. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion at end to insert "but this House regrets the omission of representatives from both the business and community sectors on the proposed strategic investment board who would ensure that the board would be a model of social partnership and would reflect the need to involve key stakeholders as called for in the report of the PPP working group review of opportunities for public private partnerships in Northern Ireland".—(Lord Smith of Clifton.)

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Conservative

My Lords, some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, ring some bells. However, in principle I do not agree with him. The situation has arisen because of internecine political battling within the parties at Stormont. It has been suggested that the Bill (as it then was) would not have passed through Stormont had it stayed there. I have done a little research—one does not have to count a lot of numbers—and there is considerable doubt on that. The likelihood is that it would have passed. But, what is more important is that it is a very good Bill, it should pass, and is in the right hands—that is, in the office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That is what the argument is about. Should it be there or in another department controlled by some other party? That is my first point.

Secondly—I am sorry if we have debated this previously but we have an amendment before us which we have to debate—the board is a very worthwhile asset for Northern Ireland. It gives considerable potential if managed and developed well by professional people. The strategic investment board has not yet been set up. It has not yet been selected. From where I sit, there is no reason to believe that those responsible for selecting and appointing the board will not propose a sound group of people well capable of making a success of it.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, mentioned matters such as De Lorean—from 100 years ago. I think of Laganside Development Corporation which changed for the good the face of Belfast. Of course, it took some knocks on some projects because of dissatisfied parties and so on. But overall, anyone who visits Belfast now and knew it 20 or 25 years ago would hardly believe that he is in the same city. The citizens of Belfast and outside enjoy that.

Let us take the issue a stage further. I refer to the Belfast harbour board. It was set up a little before the time of my great grandfather. Its remit was to develop and work the port of Belfast in the interests of the citizens of Belfast. I believe that those developments—the redevelopment of the port, the selling off of the property portfolio and the developments on Queen's Island where Harland and Wolff has, sadly, been steadily running down—are another exceptional example of developing the property assets of part of Northern Ireland. It has been achieved by a tough business board appointed by government and others.

My anxiety—I have mentioned it to the Lord Privy Seal outside the Chamber—is that there may be a dilution of authority. I should hate to think that separate little boards would be set up to develop bits handed to the north, the east and the west. That would be a serious waste. It would not be a successful route. To set up a strong strategic investment board is the right answer. If for political correctness it is necessary also to have an advisory commission, so be it. I support the order and do not support the amendment.

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Liberal Democrat

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I have not suggested in any way that there would be mini boards set up all over the place. He tilts at the windmills of his own imagination.

Photo of Baroness Blood Baroness Blood Labour

My Lords, I am fully behind the order; and I support the amendment. I agree with the reference of my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, to the model of the Laganside Development Corporation. The Laganside board has, and must have, a proportion of representatives from the community. That has worked well. So the noble Lord's argument works against itself. However, when we were setting up the partnership boards in 1994–95, there had to be representation from business and different parts of the community. I sat on a Northern Ireland partnership board for five years and know how difficult it was to get that mix of people at the beginning. It worked well. We now have LSP boards, area partnership boards—in fact, boards coming out of our ears. You can rarely meet anyone in Northern Ireland who is not on some board. So the expertise is there.

We are discussing the bases that the Army had for years. Most of them are in local communities, not down in the docks like Laganside, which is a beautiful tribute to Belfast. Local communities had to put up with all the business that went with those bases for many years. I do not want to circumvent the system. I hope that the strategic investment body will include that knowledge, but if local communities were included, that would give people confidence and a feeling of pride in their area. Giving the local community a say could put to bed many future disagreements.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions made. If the House wishes to have my advice, I advise it to vote for the order and to endorse the approach so clearly set out by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran.

The membership of the company's board will be controlled by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister—both of them democratically elected. Accounts will be subject to scrutiny by independent audit. The affairs of the company will be subject to audit for value for money under Article 9 of the Audit (Northern Ireland) Order.

I shall quote a little more fully from the letter that I sent to the noble Lord, Lord Smith. I observed:

"A small expert board is the most efficient option and the Government will be proceeding on that basis".

For the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I am sure that that is right. I continued:

"Current thinking suggests that the board should consist of one public sector representative, the interim chief executive and the chair of Partnerships UK"— who have been acting as consultants—

"plus a small number of other experts in the relevant fields".

I then turned to the advisory council, of which I notified all those who attended the Grand Committee on Northern Ireland Orders after our discussion. The letter states:

"I emphasise that Government is committed to a social partnership approach in this important area of policy development. I want to ensure that the social partners, including the representatives of trade unions, business and the voluntary and community sectors will continue to make an effective contribution".

I hope that that answers the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blood.

"I hope, therefore, to announce soon the details of proposals for the establishment of an advisory council representing a range of local interests"— precisely the point raised by the noble Baroness—

"to discuss and advise on the SIB and its work, with specific reference to Public Private Partnerships, which will include representation from the social partners".

All that the noble Lord, Lord Smith, wants is contained in those assurances. The right way forward for the board is for it to be constituted as I described. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, for his support. I must tell your Lordships that the amendment is no more than aspirational—which is sufficient condemnation.

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Liberal Democrat

Aspirational, my Lords, describes the right sort of motive. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, said, that is common practice in Northern Ireland. The opposition of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was wide of the mark about what I suggested. It was in his imagination. The noble and learned Lord said that the board would be audited and subject to this, that and the other condition. I expect all that to happen.

The Government would save themselves a lot of trouble if they included two or three community representatives from business, the trade unions and the voluntary sector in decision-making. As I said earlier, the PPP process has not always gone smoothly and some commonsense views would be welcome. For that reason, I should like to press my amendment.

On Question, Whether the amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 50; Not-Contents, 134.

Division number 1 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Strategic Investment and Regeneration of Sites (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

Aye: 48 Members of the House of Lords

No: 132 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

On Question, Motion agreed to.