I should like to report to the Assembly on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council that was held in sectoral format in Newry on Monday 24 January. Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Dr Farren and I attended that meeting. The Irish Government were represented by Ms Mary Harney TD, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. This report has been approved by Dr Farren and is also made on his behalf.
The Council agreed that the following persons be appointed as chairpersons and vice-chairpersons of the respective bodies: Food Safety Promotion Board — chairperson Bertie Kerr, vice-chairperson Prof Mike Gibney; Trade and Business Development Body — chairperson Martin Naughton, vice-chairperson Harold Ennis; North/South Language Body — joint chairperson for Irish Language Maighréad Uí Mháirtín, and joint chairperson for Ulster-Scots Lord Laird of Artigarvan.
The Council also agreed that Mr Don Anderson be appointed to the Food Safety Promotion Board. The Council further approved procedures for the recruitment of the chief executive of the Trade and Business Development Body.
The Council received a verbal report from Mr Liam Nellis, interim chief executive of the Trade and Business Development Body, on the progress to date in establishing the body and on drafting its future work. The body already has a core staff of 12, drawn from officials North and South, operating in temporary offices in Belfast before moving to permanent accommodation in Newry.
The Council approved an indicative timetable to which the board of the Trade and Business Development Body will work in submitting activity proposals and operational issues to the council for approval.
The Council agreed the following dates for future sectoral meetings in relation to the Trade and Business Development Body: Wednesday 22 March in the South; Wednesday 17 May in Newry; Wednesday 6 September in the South; and Wednesday 6 December in Newry.
The Council agreed the text of a communiqué which was issued following the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.
The chairpersons and deputy chairpersons were chosen and authorised by the Executive Committee. The names were put forward at the initial inaugural meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council held in Armagh on 13 December 1999. The nominations put forward by the Irish Government and by the Northern Ireland Executive were considered, and a decision was taken on the nominations at that meeting. It was not possible at that stage to proceed to nominate the persons formally, and it was decided on 13 December 1999 that the first meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in sectoral format would take the decision on the appointment of the chairpersons and deputy chairpersons.
No. The hon Member should be careful. I could make analogies about the closeness of persons to other persons in various other activities. The people that have been assembled to perform these functions are of a very high calibre and quality. I am satisfied that as a farmer, a primary producer and someone who has paid attention to that industry throughout his life, Mr Kerr will be very capable of chairing this body. I look forward to seeing his success in that.
Does the Minister agree that the market represented by international, multinational branch plants in the Republic of Ireland is growing very rapidly? Furthermore, does he agree that Northern Ireland companies have a very small proportion of sub-supply to that market? Does he agree that the North/South Ministerial Council in sectoral format is a means of winning valuable new orders and jobs for our small and medium-sized enterprises?
The hon Member will know very well that small and medium-sized enterprises are the core and backbone of business and commerce in Northern Ireland. He will also know that the level of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic is dismally low. Members may well be aware that more than 93% and 94% respectively of the trade of our two economies is not with each other. This is astonishing in view of the fact that we have a land border.
One of the key objectives set out for this body on 18 December 1998 was to focus on the promotion of North/South supply chains, including business linkages and partnerships. With the effort and enthusiasm that I believe exists on both sides, and the exceptionally high calibre of the people from a wide range of disciplines who have joined the board, I am confident that this body will do much to improve trade between the two economies, which, as I have said, starts from an exceptionally low base. Increased trade is equivalent to increased investment. It produces jobs and works its way through the economy. That is one of the primary purposes of this body, and I am confident that it will succeed.
May I ask the Minister what qualifications two of the people whose appointments he has announced have? I refer to the new chairman of the Food Safety Promotion Board, Bertie Kerr, an Ulster Unionist councillor from Fermanagh, and the chairman of the Trade and Business Development Body, Martin Naughton, head of Glen Dimplex, whose workforce is over 90% Roman Catholic.
We have to be very careful if we are going to focus on personalities in these matters. However, if we wish to do so, let us do so. Mr Kerr is a senior member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union and chairs one of its subcommittees. If the impression is that a farmer is inappropriate for or incapable of doing the work of the Food Safety Promotion Board, there is something radically wrong. Food safety promotion starts with the primary producers. I can think of no person better equipped to deal with that than someone who is actually engaged in the industry. This is one of our key industries. It has tended to be dominated by consumer groups, but producer groups are also important. The board as a whole is balanced, with people representing consumer interests, the general public and others.
With regard to the chairperson of the Trade and Business Development Body, I think that most people accept that he and his deputy are two very acceptable individuals who have had significant success in trade and business. If there is some particular complaint against that person’s company, no doubt there are ways and means of processing that. From what I can see, Mr Naughton is a significant employer both in this economy and in the Republic’s. After seeing the response that he and his deputy received at the inaugural meeting in Newry, I have little doubt that that view is shared by the rest of his board.
The Minister has said that the primary responsibility for food safety lies with producers. Does he not agree that the primary responsibility lies with consumers? Clearly there are sometimes incompatible debates between producers and consumers. Might it not have been best to find someone from outside the field for that particular post? Was the decision unanimous?
I note that the council has approved procedures for the recruitment of a chief executive for the Trade and Business Development Body. Will the Minister give details of these procedures? Is it his intention to consider the gender of those who are about to take up positions?
When it comes to the promotion of food safety, everyone is concerned. We are all consumers. It is not good enough to say that because consumer groups are active in protecting and promoting the interests of consumers they have an exclusive right to chair every body that deals with these matters.
There are scientifically based persons involved as well. As Members know from recent decisions in Great Britain, persons were chosen there who did not come from any of the groups. My view remains that all groups are equally entitled to representation. Someone with an agricultural background has been chosen in this case, and it is not right to say that any person with such a farming background ought to be excluded from having a say or from chairing this body.
With regard to procedures, a significant range of issues was dealt with relating to the appointment of a chief executive. There is an interim chief executive in place. It was decided that the best procedure would be to ensure that the job was widely advertised, and criteria covering the various matters have been established. I would have no hesitation in writing to the hon Lady with the precise details of the proposals.
The intention is to ensure that a person of high calibre is attracted to this post. The gender and background of any applicant will be subject — as is the case with all these appointments — to statutory requirements, and that is written into the criteria that the hon Lady will see. I am very confident that the procedures are in place that will ensure a fair and open competition for these posts. The final decision on the appointment of the chief executive will rest with the council and with Ministers.
Can the Minister tell us a little more about the interim chief executive? Who appointed him? Whence did he come? And what was his position prior to this interim appointment?
The 12 core staff members are to be based in Newry in Northern Ireland. Will all 12 appointments comply with fair employment legislation in Northern Ireland, or will some staff members working in Northern Ireland not comply while others will be required to do so?
The interim chief executive is Mr Liam Nellis. His position was identified by both Governments prior to the passage of the devolution legislation. He is in a temporary position. Mr Nellis should be well known to some Colleagues as he has been seconded to this position from the Industrial Development Board, where he built up a very significant reputation. The presentation which we received demonstrated that he has very significant abilities.
All of the current appointments are temporary secondees, and no one has been formally appointed. That will not happen until open competitions are held for the posts, and the open competitions are such that the staff could come not only from Northern Ireland but from anywhere in the European Union. As the right hon Member knows, the open competitions will be widely advertised, and applicants could emerge from anywhere.
On the question of whether the terms and conditions will comply with fair employment and other legislation, the answer is yes. That will be rigorously guaranteed in the recruitment procedures.
I note that the Minister has outlined a programme of meetings up to December of this year. In the circumstances, I welcome his optimism on this issue. When the programme of work is being drawn up for the Trade and Business Development Body, will he, unlike some of his Executive Colleagues, consult with the relevant Committee of the Assembly — the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee — about it? Will he also regularly inform the Committee of any developments that take place?
The initial agenda for the work programme of the Trade and Business Development Body was foreshadowed in the agreement of 18 December 1998. The initial work programmes were also identified in the actual legislation. So at an early stage in the proceedings the work programmes were signalled by the legislation.
The House approved four time-specific items in February 1999: an equity investment fund, graduate and other placement programmes, North/South testing services and standards development and certification programmes. Some of the items are technical, and reports have to be produced on them within three months.
The body is also committed to the creation of a corporate plan and funding requirements. Without a corporate plan it would be impossible to do the business in the future. The specific dates were timed to allow approvals to be given at each stage so that the body could get started. The corporate plan would be the first item to be approved, and, in parallel with that, work is continuing on the four time-specific items.
I am an enthusiast for the committee system in the Assembly. I believe that it is an integral and key part of the process. Any matter under the jurisdiction or control of a committee can be raised by it — and that includes this body. I would be happy to share my views and proposals with the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee and to appear before it. Indeed, I would be happy to take the advice of the Committee on any appropriate input that should be given to this body.
I welcome the appointment of Mr Bertie Kerr to the chair of the Food Safety Promotion Board. He is a farmer, and there is no profession in the North of Ireland that has a greater interest in the quality and success of the end product. I welcome the fact that a farmer has been appointed to the chair, and I am sure the Minister also welcomes the appointment.
Was it agreed that particular political parties would nominate for the Northern Ireland share of these eight positions? I want a clear answer from the Minister.
Does the Minister agree that this carve-up, which includes at least two paid-up members of the Ulster Unionist Party and a member of Sinn Féin, stinks of political cronyism that would do Tony Blair’s Labour Party proud?
I refer the Member to the answer that I gave some time ago. The names that were suggested came from a variety of sources, including parties. The nominations were looked at and the decisions taken by the North/South Ministerial Council. In other words, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government had names placed before them, and they made the actual appointments. Members of political parties are not excluded from appointment in the United Kingdom, in the Irish Republic or in other parts of Europe. I am sure that if Mr Wilson had been interested in putting names forward we would have considered them as well.
I am sure the Minister will agree that when a person who has clear and distinct political affiliations with a particular party is appointed as a chairman or a member of any of these boards, it immediately calls into question his or her other qualifications for the post. The Minister has said that Mr Bertie Kerr is a farmer and that he therefore has an interest in food safety and promotion. Of course, the same criteria could be applied to a cleaner in an abattoir.
What is required from the Minister is an answer defining — beyond party affiliations and a relationship with Mr Trimble’s PR consultant — Mr Kerr’s qualifications. What qualifications has he in the general area of food-safety promotion? What experience has he of chairing such a body, and what experience has he in the subject matter of this committee? It is not good enough to simply say that he is a farmer. Using that criterion, we could have a farmer as the Minister of Agriculture for the United Kingdom.
The hon Member has made a number of broad points. However, with respect to specific qualifications, Mr Kerr has been chair and secretary of the Fermanagh district of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. He has also been chairman of a task force on agriculture in County Fermanagh. As Members will be aware, that county has suffered drastically over a long period, particularly due to the BSE crisis. Mr Kerr was very active in County Fermanagh farming circles at that time. Someone who has had —in addition to his role in the district council and in the economic development aspect of that council’s work— hands-on experience and who has chaired a task force dealing with the implications of a failure in food safety and the direct consequences of that to the farming community is probably better qualified to deal with these situations than others who may consider themselves to be so qualified.
The Minister will be delighted to know that I strongly endorse the involvement of the farming community in the cross-border bodies and in food safety. I think that nobody else is better placed.
Will the cross-border trade and business development body have any power to create new methods of funding for small businesses? I am thinking in particular of the establishment of venture capital funds or micro-lending to drive small new technology projects. Can the Minister tell us what areas will be explored in the general terms of equity investment in small businesses? I see that as the lifeblood of new business and jobs.
The hon Member knows fully the potential there is for equity investment to assist small companies. I indicated earlier that there were a number of matters that were preordained to be part of the agenda of this body. As far as initiating new programmes to assist small and medium-sized enterprises with research and implementing joint venture partnerships on a North/South basis are concerned, the North/South Ministerial Council has instructed the body to bring forward to the council, within three months, proposals on developing a North/South equity investment fund. So the work will start soon, to see what is available and what can be done.
The venture capital market has changed significantly since December 1998 when those decisions were taken. More people have entered the market. We have had the American involvement in the micro-lending scheme which has been headed by Mr Lyons. We will have an announcement shortly on the Veridian growth fund, and we have had other players come into the market. The task now will be to see if there is a particular niche market that can be identified. Funding will be made available through this body. However, the question is: what can that funding attract from the private sector, and whom can it attract from that sector?
When dealing with venture capital we have discovered that part of the problem is that the minimum threshold that some of these companies take is too high for many of the small or medium-size ones that we want to help. The other big problem that many of these companies have is the fear that they are losing a degree of equity and that they will have to surrender a portion of their company to the venture capitalist. That has created a barrier. More people are taking advantage of such capital, and if we can identify a genuine market that is not currently being served by the private sector — or by the private sector in conjunction with the public sector — I intend to ensure that we concentrate on that. I am sure that, from experience, we realise that we must remove the barriers between small and medium-size enterprises and the acquisition of capital. That will be the objective of this fund.
May I go back to the chairpersons’ nominations? These are powerful executive all-Ireland bodies. It is important that we deal with this. With reference to Martin Naughton’s nomination, was any cognisance taken of the fact that Glen Dimplex has such a poor record for employing Protestants in a particular area? As regards Bertie Kerr’s nomination to the Food Safety Promotion Board, given Mr Empey’s great concern about the primary producers, can he confirm that he consulted the Ulster Farmer’s Union and the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association about this?
The Member has talked about these powerful executive all-Ireland bodies. May I remind him that the legislation sets out the fact that the functions of the body will be exercised by the board. It will at all times act in accordance with any directions, whether of a general or a specific nature, given by the North/South Ministerial Council. A body cannot operate on its own — [Interruption] If the laughter were to terminate for a moment, Members would realise that the North/South Ministerial Council can proceed only by agreement. The agendas and functions that are given to these bodies will be given by Ministers, by agreement, before the body is able to operate. I have no doubt that the boards will be accountable and will act only in accordance with the directions they are given. That is their specific responsibility.
Nominations were not sought from any public bodies with regard to the individuals who were put forward by the process. I repeat that I am unaware of any successful challenges to Mr Naughton’s employment practices. If there had been, no doubt the Member would have drawn them to our attention. One of Mr Naughton’s enterprises is Seagoe Technologies in Portadown, so his group of companies spans both sides of the border and provides very useful and profitable work for a large number of people.
Can the Minister outline how the new cross-border Trade and Business Development Body might be used effectively to help business activity in the border area, particularly from Derry to Newry? Does he agree that the current punt/pound exchange rate problem is having an adverse effect on Northern Ireland businesses?
The Member and some of his Colleagues spoke to me on another matter to do with exchange rates. He is quite right: it is creating many problems. Ironically, in particular circumstances where businesses produce articles with a large quantity of imported materials, the exchange rate has helped them to lower their prices. This has helped some of them to off-set the difficulties with exchange rates, and there has not been the collapse in cross-border trade that might have been anticipated. Indeed, it has continued to grow year on year despite the currency exchange rate.
However, the degree to which the currencies have diverged in recent months may be of such a magnitude that that cannot continue. At the moment I do not have any official figures or estimates to give me an indication as to what that trend will be, but it cannot be ignored.
I suspect that the body will be asked to look at specific areas, perhaps specific geographical areas, to see what can be done. I mentioned the development of supply chains. Let me give a simple example. Companies on each side of the border may be importing products from other parts of the world even though they are available a few miles away. As I have said, cross-border trade is a small part of each economy, and when the figure is drawn to the attention of people outside our jurisdiction they are surprised by how little activity there is. The irony of our current situation is that as we approach the removal of political barriers to co-operation, the currency has become a more effective barrier than any constitutional difficulties that we have had in the past.
We spoke about this last Monday, and I can assure the Member that the body is clear that there are opportunities to proceed and look at matters geographically. I have no doubt that that will be pursued.