North/South Ministerial Council: Special EU Programmes

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 23rd April 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:15 pm, 23rd April 2001

Members, I have received notice from the Minister of Finance and Personnel that he wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on special EU programmes held on 9 April 2001.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I should like to report to the Assembly on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in the special European Union programmes sector held in Dublin on Monday 9 April 2001, which Mr Dermot Nesbitt and I attended. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Charlie McCreevy TD, Minister for Finance. The report has been approved by Mr Nesbitt and is also made on his behalf.

The Council welcomed the recently appointed chief executive of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), Mr John McKinney, and recorded its appreciation of the contribution which Mr Philip Angus had made during his time as interim chief executive.

The chief executive gave a presentation on the progress made by the Special EU Programmes Body since the last meeting in that sector on 15 November 2000. He identified progress made towards the development of a strategic plan that will enable the body to fulfil its mandate. The Council was pleased to note the work in progress and the evolving structure of the SEUPB.

The Council agreed that the various programmes within the remit of the body had a major role to play in the development of peace and reconciliation and economic and social progress on the whole island, particularly in the border areas. The Council highlighted the importance of the chief executive’s role in that respect and looked forward to working closely with him in implementing those important tasks.

The Council received a report on proposals for a revised staffing structure for the body that had emerged as the result of a review carried out by external consultants. The Council acknowledged that, while an initial staffing structure had been agreed at the sectoral meeting on special EU programmes in June 2000, it had been agreed that that structure would have to be reviewed as the body developed and its responsibilities became operational.

The Council agreed that it was important that permanent staff be appointed as soon as possible and stressed the need for the body to secure value for money by ensuring an appropriate level of staff at the minimum cost to the public purse.

The Council noted that the proposals for a revised staffing structure were now the subject of an urgent full structural analysis and job evaluation, and it approved the immediate recruitment of five new posts, the cost of which would be met from the SEUPB’s approved budget for 2001.

The Council received a report on the outcome of the public consultation on the draft Equality Scheme which the body had drawn up in accordance with its statutory responsibilities under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Council stressed the importance of the application of the principle of equality of opportunity by the body in all areas of its work, and it approved the submission of the draft Equality Scheme to the Equality Commission.

The Council considered the draft targeting social need action plan which had been prepared by the SEUPB in accordance with the requirements of the New TSN programme. The draft plan, which outlines how the body proposes to conform to the principles of New TSN, was approved by the Council as a basis for consultation during April and May 2001. The Council looked forward to the outcome of the consultation and to seeing the final draft of the plan at the next North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on EU programmes.

The Council received a report on the progress of negotiations on the Peace II operational programme and programme complement since the last sectoral meeting on EU programmes on 15 November. The Council was pleased to note that negotiations on the Peace II programme were now complete, and it welcomed the formal approval of the programme in Belfast on 22 March during the visit of the European Commissioner for Regional Policy, Michel Barnier. The Council noted the progress made by the SEUPB on the programme complement and that a draft of the programme complement would be put to the Peace II monitoring committee at its next meeting.

The Council stressed the need for the monitoring committee to be given every support in discharging its responsibilities so that it can give careful consideration and agreement to the programme complement as soon as possible. The Council urged the body to ensure that funding comes on stream in the very near future.

In the context of the Peace programme — in particular, the cross-border elements of the programme — the Council indicated that it would expect to hear about progress on the common chapter at the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in this format.

The Council received a report on the new partnership arrangements being put in place in Northern Ireland to further develop partnership-working at local level by establishing more effective mechanisms to reinforce and extend the social partnership model and to make it sustainable beyond the lifetime of the Peace II programme. The Council noted that a new regional partnership board, chaired by the two junior Ministers in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, is being created and that the SEUPB will provide the secretariat for that new board. This will help to achieve co-ordination between the roles of the body in relation to priority three of Peace II and the wider roles of the partnerships and the board in developing and extending the principles of partnership-working to other areas of European and mainstream public-expenditure-funded activity.

The Council also noted that the SEUPB would take over secretariat functions for the existing Northern Ireland Partnership Board to help to ensure a smooth transition from the current partnership arrangements to the new arrangements.

The Council noted that it is planned to establish a central payments unit in the SEUPB to process payments on behalf of implementing bodies in Northern Ireland under Peace II. The Council agreed that the establishment of a central payments unit would enhance the ability of the SEUPB to monitor spending at a more detailed level under Peace II. It also agreed that the establishment of the unit would go some way towards addressing concerns expressed by the European Court of Auditors about some aspects of financial management and control systems under Peace I.

The central payments unit will not compromise the authority of the various implementing bodies appointed under the programme to take decisions on the allocation of funding to individual projects. The Council also noted that further consideration will be given to embracing payments under other EU programmes under the system.

The Council received a report of the progress made on the negotiations of the community initiatives with the European Commission. The Council welcomed the progress made on the INTERREG III programme and noted that formal negotiation was about to commence. The Council agreed that the finance departments and the SEUPB should maintain pressure on the European Commission to enter into substantive negotiations as quickly as possible. The Council also urged the body to make as much progress as possible on the preparation of the programme complement for INTERREG III in advance of the completion of negotiations.

The Council also noted that the EQUAL programme for Northern Ireland had been revised in response to the Commission’s comments and that the revised programme would be submitted to the European Commission shortly and was expected to be formally adopted during April. The Council noted that comments had been received from the Commission on the Northern Ireland LEADER programme and that that would enable negotiations to proceed.

The Council also noted that the URBAN programme for Northern Ireland, which is one of a package of 13 bids submitted by the UK, was currently the subject of discussions between the European Commission and the UK about the total number of programmes to be submitted from the member state.

The Council received a report from the action team, which was established under the chairmanship of the SEUPB, to consider how the border corridor groups could contribute to decisions on spending from the new round of structural funds support in the border region. The Council agreed a set of principles to underpin the work and roles of the border corridor groups that would give those groups a greater input in deciding on the priority for spending of EU funds in the border corridor area.

The Council noted that work would continue to develop an operational framework for the application of those principles and to examine a proposal for an expenditure performance indicator. The Council asked to be updated at the next NSMC sectoral meeting on EU programmes about the progress on how the principles outlined in the report were being implemented in practice.

The Council considered a paper outlining the progress of spend on the Peace I programme and INTERREG II programme. The Council noted that overall expenditure at 31 December 2000 stood at 79% for Peace I and 86% of the INTERREG II initiative allocations. The Council agreed that that was an important area of work and that while progress had been made since the last report to the NSMC in November, further sustained effort will be required to ensure that full expenditure is achieved by 31 December 2001.

The Council also noted that the body will provide a further progress report on the implementation of both programmes at the next NSMC sectoral meeting on the special EU programmes. The Council stressed the need for the body to ensure that all the EU regulatory requirements for closure of the programmes are met and asked to be advised at the next NSMC sectoral meeting on progress made by the body in implementing those requirements.

The Council will meet again in this format in the North in June 2001. The Council agreed the text of a joint communiqué issued following the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP 12:30 pm, 23rd April 2001

The penultimate paragraph of the third page of the Minister’s statement refers to the new regional partnership board replacing the current Northern Ireland Partnership Board. Can the Minister indicate when that process will be completed, the size of the new board and its sectoral composition? Can he elaborate on the middle sentence that refers to the role of the partnership board and links that to extending the principles of partnership working to other areas of European and mainstream public expenditure-funded activity? What does that mean? Does that contain some sort of financial and constitutional innovation, or is it quite innocuous?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

The point made in the statement reinforces and confirms a point I made in a previous statement that the operational programme for Peace II had been signed. In that context, both in answers to questions and in the statement, I addressed issues about how we saw the future development of partnership working, and we do want to develop it. The Executive have rightly stressed the need to ensure that we do not use the partnership model only for certain European programmes or for one priority area in the peace programme. If we really believe in and advocate the partnership model, we should extend it to other areas of European programme funding. Beyond the period when we have the special additional EU money available we want to be able to extend it to our own mainstream funding activity. It will mean that more decisions involving different areas of public expenditure and policy management and co-ordination will be informed by the strategic thinking of partnerships at local level.

In the next period, part of the role of the new regional partnership board will be to work not only with local partnerships to help to oversee and support what they are doing under the priority three measure of the Peace II programme but also to foster and develop more partnership thinking and working across a wider range of areas so that we achieve more from partnership and from public expenditure.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the complex and all-embracing statement by the Minister. Once again we see that, in the same way as its predecessor Peace I, the special EU programme for Peace II is a vote of confidence in the people of Ireland, North and South, and in the institutions that were set up through the Good Friday Agreement.

Can the Minister indicate what will be the timetable for the completion of the programme and the complements? When does he expect the resources to flow to the various communities so that the peace process can be deepened further? What special or enhanced arrangements will there be to ensure that the management and direction of the new regime will be based on the equality agenda and on the rural-proofing agenda and extend itself into the communities that are most in need of such support and most vulnerable?

I welcome the enhanced participation by the various bodies, boards, partnerships and district councils in the formulation of the strategy.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his comments welcoming the contribution that has been made by a number of interested parties to the development of the proposals and, just as importantly, to the management and success of the Peace II programme.

The operational programme was signed on 22 March in this Building. Under European regulations the programme complement that will set out the specific actions and measures to be undertaken must be agreed by the monitoring committee within three months of that date. Therefore we must agree it by 21 June.

Only when the programme complement is agreed by the monitoring committee will we be in a position to invite applications. We want to do that before 21 June. The Special EU Programmes Body, the two Finance Departments and all other Departments want to do it as soon as possible. If we are able to invite applications in June, we hope to see funding being allocated in September.

The monitoring committee will have a key role, not just in agreeing the programme complement, but with regard to key horizontal principles that apply right across the community support framework, including the Peace II programme. Those principles include equality and balance considerations. In this round, the monitoring committees will be encouraged to set up working groups that can focus on specific interests. There might, for instance, be a dedicated working group for rural issues.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Minister for making available the communiqué. The communiqué from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development was not available when I called into the Library. Sometimes they are more revealing than Ministers’ statements. It should also be noted that the all-Ireland council meetings are moving full steam ahead, following a slight blip when the Ulster Unionist Party withdrew briefly.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes. My question relates to the moneys that will be allocated to the cross-border element of the European programme. Will the Minister guarantee that that money will be better distributed than it was in the first round? Can he assure the House that the Unionist community, which I represent, will not be discriminated against? Given the demographics of Northern Ireland, North/South funding is more likely to go to people from the Nationalist section of the community. Will there be matching funding for the Unionist community?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Obviously, cross-border measures have particular relevance to border areas, but they are not only relevant to those areas. The monitoring arrangements that will be in place for the next programmes are a significant improvement on previous monitoring arrangements. Adherence to horizontal principles and good monitoring practice will reassure everybody that the allocation and management of the funding is fair. If funding is given to us for specific measures in particular areas, we must use it for those measures and in those areas. Where criteria such as targeting social need are involved we must fulfil those criteria. We will see a fair and competent adherence to all the principles and requirements of EU regulations and to our own equality and TSN obligations.

Photo of Gerry McHugh Gerry McHugh Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome this comprehensive statement, which deals with a matter that can be confusing for anyone dealing with the implementation of the programme.

The Minister spoke about the "near future". People will want to know when the "near future" is. Such target dates tend to move, and there is great confusion among groups about them. There is much work to be done in border areas, and there is money that can be used to the benefit of those areas.

However, groups need information about how things will happen and when things will happen. They need to know how they can go forward, how they can set up and implement projects, and how to direct themselves towards the right type of projects. They need to know the timescales, and there is a considerable amount of confusion in the industry about that. Single identity groups mentioned by Mr Poots can be dealt with on the basis of information drawn down to them.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:45 pm, 23rd April 2001

I thank the Member for his questions, and I acknowledge his point about the complexity of some of these issues and with the number of different programmes and the varying dates that are involved.

Obviously there has been a big concentration on the question of the Peace II programme. As I have indicated, we need to have the programme complements agreed by June. It will be on that basis that we will be able to invite applications for funding. I have said that we hope to be looking at allocations by September. We are trying to be clear and committed in relation to that date.

Some of the other programmes are still subject to further negotiation with the Commission, particularly the community initiatives, so we cannot specify some of those dates at this stage, because we cannot say exactly when negotiations will commence and conclude. We are not entirely masters of the timetable in relation to all of the programmes.

We have sought to communicate as much information as possible to various interested groups, not least in the context of gap funding arrangements, through which projects can apply for interim funding to cover the period from April to October 2001, because that period is clearly related to the fact that we hope to be able to look at allocations from the programme in September.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Can the Minister outline what specific steps, if any, are being taken to address the acknowledged problem of the lack of applications and the underfunding of projects from the Protestant/Unionist community in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have touched on this matter before, because a number of Members have already raised this question. It was a concern, not least at the interim stage in terms of Peace I. Various measures were identified by programme managers, not least in local partnerships, and were designed to ensure that a greater rate of applications would be encouraged and stimulated across the community. There was some success in that regard.

Members need to be careful about relying on impressionistic accounts of what has or has not been happening. I do not pretend that it has been the subject of a definitive and incontestable analysis, but some of the analyses undertaken show that there has been no difference. For instance, the rate of allocations to the two communities has been no different to the rate of applications; so there is no higher relative success rate.

The problem is about how you measure particular projects, whether you are classifying them as being from one community or another. Analyses, such as those by PricewaterhouseCoopers, indicate that significant amounts of funding are going to groups that are in essence cross- community and are able to show cross-community involvement and benefits.

We need to take account of the broader picture as well as try to ensure that we get full adherence to the horizontal principles in the new programme. Those horizontal principles place an emphasis on equality and balance.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party

I too welcome the statement and congratulate all those involved in the Minister’s Department on their work on the EU programmes. Can the Minister confirm that all parties are represented on the various monitoring committees and that the DUP, in particular, is sitting on the cross-border Peace II monitoring committee and playing a full and active part in its cross-border activities?

With regard to INTERREG III, at what stage can we expect to get details of the introduction and implementation of the operational framework and the involvement of the border corridor groups, as they are described in the new arrangements?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Four Northern parties are represented on both the Peace II and the Building Sustainable Prosperity programme monitoring committees. Five parties are represented on the overall community support framework monitoring committee. In each instance those parties include the DUP, and all members are playing a full and active role in the monitoring committees. The committees have a serious amount of work to undertake in the next period, and there must be concentration on agreeing the programme complements. I hope that all parties will play their full parts in that.

In respect of the timetable for INTERREG III, I cannot definitively answer that question, because we are awaiting negotiations, and we must see how things are going there before we will have any precise idea of when they will conclude.

I met the border corridor groups in January. Charlie McCreevy, Minister of Finance in Dublin, also met the groups. We are both very happy to acknowledge the very significant contribution that they have already made and the particular contribution that they could make to the future success not just of INTERREG III, but of other programmes as well. That is why an action team involving members of the cross-border corridor groups was established under the chairmanship of the Special EU Programmes Body. At the sectoral meeting we noted the report from that action team. We intend constructively and positively to pursue some of the issues and ideas in that report, not just for the good of the cross-border corridor groups, but for the betterment of those programmes and the particular areas represented by those groups.

Photo of George Savage George Savage UUP

I too welcome the Minister’s statement. Over the years the partnership boards have done sterling work. I am sure that they are very keen to know what is going to happen. The members of the one in which I am involved want to know what the plans are going to be, because they are starting to run out of money. Have all the applications for funding to be made through the partnership boards, and how long is the lifetime of these new boards?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I acknowledge the questions from Mr Savage. I want to make the point that the new local strategy partnerships have a particular focus as far as the management of priority three of the Peace II programme is concerned. That is for the life of that programme. We are trying to make sure that we develop the whole partnership model in a sustainable way. That means that we have to see the partnership model being able to work outside priority three of the Peace II programme and, indeed, outside and beyond the Peace II programmes and European Union- funded programmes in general. We are trying to develop the model of partnership during the next peace programme in ways that will sustain it beyond that particular programme.

Many of the local partnerships that had legitimate concerns and misgivings about how things might go have been somewhat reassured by the approach that is now visible to them. I can understand that there were communication and clarity difficulties that meant that people did have legitimate concerns. I hope that more people involved in partnership activity are now encouraged in relation to the proposals that we have for moving forward. They can see that they are about moving forward for all the very good reasons that the Member identified.

Photo of Mrs Annie Courtney Mrs Annie Courtney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I too welcome the Minister’s statement and, in particular, the continued success in firmly establishing the Special EU Programmes Body. This body, which is a product of the Good Friday Agreement, is a vital component in building peace and reconciliation. We must encourage its work and ensure that it receives support in its development. Can the Minister give details as to the progress being made regarding the Peace I programme, and will every effort be made to ensure that this programme closes successfully?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her strong recognition of the contribution that the Special EU Programmes Body can make.

I said in my statement that all the Ministers involved are determined to ensure that we complete our spend on Peace I on time this year. The reliable figure that we had was from 31 December 2000, and it indicated that we were at 79% of actual spend on Peace I. The on the hoof indications from the Special EU Programmes Body are that we are looking at an 84% rate of spend at present. It is important to make sure that we spend the rest between now and 31 December. It is also important that we make good some of the spending shortfalls in other areas. It is not that the money is not allocated, but for various reasons it has not been drawn down. We need to look at whether we should move into some reserve allocations for some of the funding as the best way of ensuring that we complete the spend.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

This and other meetings highlight the effectiveness of the North/South Ministerial Council and the need for it to progress issues such as EU funding and special EU programmes.

Unlike a previous Member who presented his question to the Minister, I do not represent one community. I aspire to represent both communities. Everyone in this House should aspire to represent both communities. We in north Belfast, an area of very high deprivation, look forward to the completion of negotiations between the UK Government and the European Commission in relation to URBAN II. It is vitally important for the development of north Belfast and those communities that have been so badly deprived over the years, both Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist.

It is disappointing to note that the UK Government have not yet reached agreement with the European Commission. When does the Minister believe that agreement will be reached in relation to URBAN II?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:00 pm, 23rd April 2001

I want to acknowledge the important point made by Alban Maginness about how we approach and look at these important areas. We should particularly consider that part of the way we have lobbied for and sold the whole concept of these programmes to the European Commission has been on the basis of the significant impact that they can have at a cross- community level in fostering peace and reconciliation. It makes it all the more important, when we are deliberating on these programmes, that we try to think on a whole- community basis and not on a sectional basis.

Regarding the URBAN programme question, I cannot answer that. Alban Maginness will have heard me say before that prophecy is the most gratuitous form of error. I am not going to say when exactly I think negotiations will be completed. I can point out — as he recognises — that the difficulty is not one that arises because of the particular proposals submitted from Northern Ireland. The difficulties arise because our proposals are one of a package of 13 bids for this programme submitted by the UK, and there is a disagreement between the Commission and the UK Government about the number and format of programmes submitted by the UK. We have serious concerns about the Commission’s approach and have registered those concerns. We have also raised them with Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. It is his Department that handles these issues at UK level.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

I also commend the Minister for this statement and, indeed, for his work, given the enormous difficulties he has faced both on the issue of the gap funding and with regard to the future programmes under Peace II.

My first question concerns the timetable. I welcomed the announcement on March 22, which included an operational timetable. They hope to have received bids and projects by August and to make decisions by September. This seems to me to be a very tight deadline. Is there any flexibility? It is worth putting on the record that it is an impossible deadline. Indeed, we may be back here looking for that flexibility in September, as we may not be in a position to allocate the first round of funding. This may not be as a result of anything that the Minister has done, but I ask him to create a little bit of flexibility, given the concerns that I am hearing on the ground. People do not feel that they may be able to meet the timetable as currently set out.

I also welcome the fact that the social partnership model may be extended beyond Peace II. This has been raised with us, particularly by visiting American delegations, who have come to look at the role of civic society in Northern Ireland, which is of enormous importance to the peace process. One of the points made to us is that the European Community may be creating a monster. Many groups are now being funded, but when Peace II runs out what is going to happen? It is extremely important, through the work of the Minister and others, that we have achieved the substantial amount of funding for Northern Ireland that takes us through this transition. It is a very difficult period for us. What are the plans for mainstreaming?

I remember when we set up women’s aid refuges in the 1970s, and everyone said we could not sustain them and that the Government would never take them over. Today no one would think of closing women’s refuges; that highlights the enormous role they have played in saving lives. I have an enormous concern about closing, or attempting to close, after Peace II, many of the wonderful projects that have been started in communities, particularly by women’s organisations. The Minister will be aware, no doubt, that the rural women’s network and other women’s support networks have written to him with this concern that they no longer want to have to be dependent on European funding. There should be a parallel discussion with Departments about mainstreaming many of these programmes

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

It has been recognised that significant work has been involved and is still ahead. There are challenges for everybody in this. There are challenges not just for me and my Department and for other Ministers and their Departments, but for many of the bodies that have been involved in Peace I and have very strong ambitions and legitimate motives for being involved in Peace II as well.

We have been very conscious that there has been a great deal of frustration because the timetable keeps being pushed back. The operational programme was agreed and signed on 22 March. Under EU regulations, we have to have the programme complements agreed within three months of that date. That takes us up to June. On the basis of having the programme complements agreed, we would then be in a position to invite applications and bids. That is not a cut-off date. Applications can come after that time as well. In fact, bids can be made at any stage throughout the lifetime of the programme.

We want to respond to the fact that there is a great deal of concern and frustration. On the basis of the evidence that comes across my desk, there are very good proposals out there. In trying to move to being in a position to invite applications soon, we are not trying to set any deadlines that would make it very hard for groups or projects. We want the best possible spend and use of this money. We are not going to use timetables in ways that would militate against that.

I agree with Ms McWilliams on the need to have a strategy for mainstreaming the partnership model and making sure that the strategic thinking of partnerships influences and informs much more of what we do across a range of measures, not just at local level but also at regional level. How exactly that will be developed and managed will be one of the key roles of the regional development board.

In the new programme, the regional development board will not be preoccupied with micromanaging what local partnerships are doing. It will have responsibility for sponsoring and fostering a much stronger and more strategic approach to partnership that goes on for much longer and affects much wider areas than the Peace II programme.

The sitting was suspended at 1.08 pm.

On resuming (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair) —