Report of the Committee of the Centre: European Union Issues

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:45 pm on 8th April 2002.

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(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the recommendations outlined in the report of the Committee of the Centre on its Inquiry into the ‘Approach of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Devolved Government on European Union Issues’ (02/01/R) and calls on the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to implement the relevant recommendations.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I have received one amendment to the motion, which is published on the Marshalled List of amendments.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I beg to move the following amendment: In line 1 delete "notes" and insert "accepts".

After consideration at its meeting of 20 March 2002, the Committee of the Centre agreed to an amendment to its original motion to ask the Assembly to accept rather than note its report and recommendations. We believe that the change gives more weight to our recommendations and is a truer reflection of the work and commitment shown by members of the Committee over the past six months. I shall speak on the amendment.

I shall start by giving some background on how EU issues impact on Northern Ireland and why the Committee of the Centre and I believe that it is an important area worthy of in-depth consideration. European issues are not devolved matters. The European Union is a union of member states, and a council of the relevant Ministers from the member states — the Council of Ministers — and the European Parliament make decisions.

During the Committee’s investigations, it came as a surprise to discover that up to 60% of our legislation comes from Europe, and 80% of the policies in our Programme for Government relate to, or originate from, European Union policies. Although the decisions are taken in Brussels, they are implemented in, and impact on, Northern Ireland. That gives the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Administration a clear role to play in EU affairs. The role is recognised and codified in the memorandum of understanding between the United Kingdom Government and the Northern Ireland Executive in the Concordat on Co-ordination of European Union Policy Issues.

United Kingdom Ministers and Departments take policy lines on various issues under discussion in Europe. The relevant Minister subsequently takes that policy line to the Council of Ministers in Europe. It is, therefore, vital that Northern Ireland ensures that its voice is heard in London before the UK agrees its policy line. That is especially important when the issue under consideration will have a distinct or unique impact on our region.

Post-devolution, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister created two new structures to reflect Northern Ireland’s changed role in EU affairs — the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels and the European Policy Co-ordination Unit in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The Committee visited the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels in January 2002 and used its premises as its headquarters while it carried out business there. The office has the remit of liaising with European Union institutions on issues that affect Northern Ireland. The occasion of the Committee’s visit to Brussels afforded Northern Ireland’s MEPs their first opportunity to visit the office.

The Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly have similar offices. I wish to make it clear that the Committee welcomes the opening of the Brussels office. It is an essential step if Northern Ireland is to create its own voice in Europe and have a say in the UK policy line to Brussels. The offices are well situated and well appointed, and every consideration has been given to security. Given that the staff work under the umbrella of the UK Permanent Representation to Brussels (UKRep), which gives them diplomatic status and access to confidential papers, security considerations are important. However, the Committee has major concerns about the approach that the office adopts. Those concerns centre on the fact that the office was initially set up only for the Executive. That was done despite the expectation of the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe that it would share office space with the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive.

The Committee questions that narrow approach. It also has concerns that so much office space is lying empty. The Northern Ireland people are paying for the office at a premium, and that space could be used to create a sense of an office for Northern Ireland, not simply an office for the Executive. All the evidence that the Committee received indicates that to succeed in the creation of a distinct voice for a region, it is necessary to involve all individuals and organisations that have an interest in Europe. That includes MEPs, the Assembly, local government and other non-governmental partners. The Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly have taken a co-operative networking approach, and the Committee believes that that is the best approach for Northern Ireland.

When the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly opened their offices in Brussels, they made a deliberate decision to work co-operatively with the organisations that were already there. The Scottish Executive moved into the same building as Scotland Europa, and the Welsh Assembly shares office space with the Wales European Centre. Scotland and Wales built on the experience of the organisations that were already there, which allowed them to build on the existing contacts and make use of existing networks.

A platform for all of Scotland and Wales, it also created a sense of a region working together. A complementary system exists between non-Government and Government, which only enhances the profile of the region. As many individuals told us during our visit to Brussels, the European Commission, the European Council of Ministers and the Parliament do not want to hear five or six different voices from one region. Representations are more likely to be effective when all sectors and parties work together.

When the Committee began the inquiry, we were concerned at the lack of such a co-operative partnership-led approach. We welcome indications from the junior Minister and from the First and Deputy First Ministers that that is now being addressed. This change, however welcome, does not address the issue of why the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister did not initially develop a working relationship with the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe, which had a base in Brussels. It did, and still does, have a wide range of contacts and access to important and influential networks. It has in-depth knowledge and expertise, which can be used for all of Northern Ireland. The Committee understands that OFMDFM has reopened communication with the Northern Ireland Centre. I could be cynical and say that negotiations are only happening because of the inquiry. However, the Committee is more concerned that it is happening, rather than why it did not happen in the first place.

As I have said, our focus was to ensure that the approach being taken was the best for Northern Ireland, and, to that end, we make several recommendations for the Brussels office that will improve the current approach. We welcome the statement by junior Minister Haughey that communication has been reopened with the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe and recommend that the Committee receive regular briefings on the progress of such communication. We also recommend that the Brussels office take a more co-operative and networking approach, that it looks at the Scottish and Welsh models of building on existing expertise and that it provides office space for non-governmental organisations. We would also like to see a change in its name, to reflect the more co-operative approach promised by the junior Minister in his evidence to the Committee, and by the First and Deputy First Ministers in their speeches at the office’s opening.

The other new structure put in place by OFMDFM since devolution is the European Policy and Co-ordination Unit, which sits within the Economic Policy Unit of OFMDFM. Its overall task is to provide a policy and co-ordination role for the Departments in developing their relationship with the European Union. The unit has identified six main areas of work, which are listed on page 253 of the report. The Committee focused on the co-ordination aspect of the unit’s work and found it to be disappointing. Of course, some leeway must be allowed, as it is a new unit that is starting from scratch. However, it has been operating for two years, and we expected it to have made more progress than it has done. For example, in the EU strategy, we find that OFMDFM’s corporate business plan was to be delivered in July 2001, and we still await it. What we eventually received, at the conclusion of the inquiry, was an intermediate document — the EU draft framework. Junior Minister Haughey indicated in his evidence that he aimed to complete the strategy before the Assembly breaks for the elections in 2003. That is almost two years behind schedule, which is totally unacceptable.

The EU draft framework also makes reference to several other strategies and related documents, such as the strategy for interregional co-operation and a policy on secondments. However, we have no indication of when those documents will be available for our scrutiny. The document is only a framework, but even within a framework we expect to see a certain level of detail on delivery, methodology, resources, expected outcomes, timescales and evaluation. Those are all missing from the document. For example, in the framework paper, aims and objectives, as set out in annex A of the document, objective 1 has four parts to it, but it gives no indication of how those will be achieved, the resources needed, how success or failure will be measured, et cetera. The document, which is contained in a written submission in the report, is called ‘A Framework for Developing Northern Ireland’s Participation in the European Union’, yet, on page 263 of the report, reference is made to a

"co-ordinated strategy for the Northern Ireland Executive."

That is not a strategy for Northern Ireland as the title would suggest. The document is based solely on the needs of the Departments and the Executive.

No recognition is given to the involvement of the Assembly and other key players, and when we passed the framework document to other Assembly Committees, their response showed that they had neither been consulted nor had been able to scrutinise the departmental priorities listed as EU priorities for Northern Ireland. Many of the written submissions received by the Committee noted that they had not even heard of the existence of such a document.

The junior Minister made reference to, and the Committee agrees that there is a need for a regional strategy that takes account of all Northern Ireland’s needs and not simply those of Departments. That approach is missing. As with the Brussels office, a narrow approach, based solely on the needs of the Executive, is evident — an approach that the Committee does not believe is best for Northern Ireland.

I mentioned the priorities set out for Northern Ireland in the framework document. They are found in annex B of the framework document and on page 273 of the inquiry report. A list of 100 topics is set out, which, as the framework document says, are

"of immediate interest and will relate directly to the work of the Brussels office."

The Brussels office is, apparently, to shadow the 58 high priority areas. The Committee does not see how that will be possible with only four staff in the office and given its other work.

Northern Ireland is a small region in Europe with limited resources. We cannot expect to influence or make a difference in every area of EU policy that affects Northern Ireland. Planning and co-ordination are needed if our resources are to be focused on the areas in which we can be sure of getting some return. The Committee does not feel that trying to cover 100 topics will develop the focus needed to ensure successful returns from our limited resources, so we have made several recommendations that deal with the European Policy Co-ordination Unit and EU strategy. The number of topics should be reduced to achieve a more strategic focus that will reflect the distinctiveness of our situation, and that should be done by timely consultation with Assembly Committees and others, such as Members of the European Parliament.

We also recommend that the EU strategy be completed before the Assembly is dissolved for elections, and the need for greater detail on methodology, et cetera, should be addressed immediately. The strategy should be a regional one, not one narrowly focused on the needs of the Executive and Departments, and it should be developed and informed through wide consultation.

Having dealt with OFMDFM’s approach, it may be appropriate to consider whether that approach can be successful in influencing policy and decisions that affect Northern Ireland.

As I mentioned earlier, the UK is the member state that makes the decisions that affect Northern Ireland. If we wish to influence policy, we must first do that by influencing the UK policy line. Generally, the UK takes its policy line to the Council of Ministers’ meetings in Europe where the final EU policy decisions are taken, sometimes in conjunction with the European Parliament. UK Ministers are supported by the UK Permanent Representation with its staff of 140. Northern Ireland Departments must, therefore, liaise with their UK counterparts and ensure that our concerns are taken into account when the UK policy line is being determined. That is important when the policy is going to have a specific impact on us. The Committee was concerned to note that many of the Departments do not have the appropriate contacts in place.

The concordats that I mentioned make provision for Northern Ireland Ministers to attend the relevant Council of Ministers’ meetings in Brussels, and Ministers from the other devolved regions use that privilege extensively. On occasion, the Scottish Ministers have even led the UK delegation. The Committee was concerned, therefore, to find that the only Northern Ireland Minister to attend a Council of Ministers’ meeting has been Brid Rodgers and recommends that every effort be made to ensure the attendance of our Ministers at relevant Council meetings, especially when policy or legislation is being discussed that will affect Northern Ireland.

On the subject of influencing EU policy, the Committee noted the evidence that suggests that there are ways to influence EU policy, other than by the formal London route. Informal networking, especially with other regions or consortia with similar concerns, can prove very effective, if they do not contradict or go against the UK policy line.

There are several points of entry, but such informal networks require long-term commitment, collective effort, co-ordination and a willingness to actively engage with non-Government partners. It would appear from the evidence received by the Committee of the Centre that such informal networks and methods of influencing are being ignored at the expense of the formal, structured Government channels.

The Committee makes several recommendations to deal with the issue of networking. First, it looked at the individuals and organisations with a formal role to play. That includes the MEPs, the Assembly and the Northern Ireland representatives on the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee.

The Committee recommends that formal structures be put in place to ensure regular communication and networking. The MEPs, the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee members all have an important role to play in Europe, detailed knowledge of what is happening and, most importantly, strategically important contacts. For example, our three MEPs can, and have, come together, despite their diverging political backgrounds, to work to achieve the best for Northern Ireland, and they have had considerable success.

The Committee acknowledges that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has made some attempts to bring all the major players together, but those attempts do not appear to have been successful. The Committee would refer OFMDFM to the work of the Scottish Executive in creating the European Elected Members Information Liaison and Exchange (EMILE). That is a structure set up by the Scottish Executive, which regularly brings together all relevant parties and individuals who have a formal role to discuss European issues and share information. It involves the Scottish Executive, the Scottish Parliament, MEPs and Scotland’s representatives on the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee. The Committee would like a similar group to be established in Northern Ireland.

The Committee would also like structures to be put in place to ensure that networking occurs among informal players such as local government, the social partners and organisations such as the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe. The Committee notes that the Programme for Government 2001-02 made reference to a forum for Europe. That has been omitted from the latest Programme for Government. Although the Committee does not see the need for an elaborate structure, such as that of the Civic Forum, it recommends that some form of improving communication and networking with the informal parties be put in place.

The recommendations that deal with networking are especially important, given that the evidence gathered during the Committee’s inquiry showed that many of the non-Government bodies and local government representatives expressed concerns that relations within the European Union were conducted on an unco-ordinated and ad hoc basis, with little or no communication on what was happening.

The Committee considered ways to address what it thought of as the shortcomings of OFMDFM. In summary, the areas that the Committee was most concerned about include: the lack of awareness by non-Government bodies on the approach; the lack of communications and consultation by OFMDFM; the narrow focus of the European Policy and Co-ordination Unit on the needs of the Executive, rather than on the region of Northern Ireland; the need for greater clarity in those important areas; and the delay in developing the EU strategy.

The Committee’s report makes several recommendations to deal with shortcomings, which I have mentioned. However, it makes two further recommendations of a structural nature, which it believes will improve the situation.

First, the European Policy and Co-ordination Unit should be a free-standing unit within OFMDFM, not a part of the Economic Policy Unit. European affairs are sufficiently important to justify a free-standing unit. It should also be properly resourced to enable it to carry out its wide-ranging and varied responsibilities. A budget of £163,000 and four staff working under a director who has other responsibilities is insufficient to enable the unit to carry out its duties. The Committee suspects that that under-resourcing leads to missed deadlines, lack of consultation and a focus on the official channels of communication.

The second major change that the Committee recommends on the structure of OFMDFM concerns the remit of the junior Ministers. Several witnesses suggested that Northern Ireland should have a Minister, or junior Minister, for Europe. The Committee considers that there is some merit in that. Although there is nothing in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to prevent the nomination of one of the junior Ministers to take a lead role in one policy area, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have taken the position that the junior Ministers must act jointly. The Committee, however, recommends that one junior Minister should take a lead role for European affairs.

That would be pivotal if the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister were to address issues such as the widespread perception of an unco-ordinated and ad hoc approach.

Post-devolution, Northern Ireland has the ability to develop its own strategies and policies, which differs from the pre-devolution period when policy was established in London. The direct engagement of officials with Europe — with the exception of the Department of Finance and Personnel on funding and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development — was limited. The Committee thinks that a more proactive approach should now be taken to build capacity in Departments and in the Assembly in order to become engaged in European issues. When junior Minister Denis Haughey gave evidence to the Committee, he agreed with that point. He said that

"It takes considerable time to build capacity in that machine [the Civil Service] and to reorient it so that it begins to think in ways which have not been natural for about a quarter of a century."

The evidence received by the Committee points to secondments as being one of the most effective ways to build capacity. The Committee was, therefore, alarmed at some of the information available on secondment. Despite its importance, very few people are currently on secondment. More importantly, it appears that, on return from secondment, little use is made of newly acquired skills. During its inquiry, the Committee examined the secondment policies of the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly. The Scottish Executive have put aside a substantial budget in order to allow up to 12 secondments each year. The Welsh Assembly has gone a step further by ensuring that secondments can be made from the non-Government sector. That is another example of partnership and a co-operative approach that seems to be missing from the Northern Ireland approach.

However, the Committee notes that a secondment policy is being developed, and it looks forward to receiving it. The Committee expects that the recommendations on secondments in its report will be taken on board. The recommendations include: long-term secondments of two to three years, and short-term secondments; full use being made of the experience and skills gained on return; enhanced promotional opportunities for long-term secondees in order to attract high-quality candidates, and to provide a reward for the disruption to the secondee and to his or her family; central funding to be put in place to cover departmental costs, because Departments must pick up the secondment costs at present, which is not encouraging and is often seen as a disincentive to allowing staff to go on EU secondments; and funding for non-Government secondments.

Northern Ireland has several outstanding EU Directives that have not been transposed, and we could soon face fines for non-compliance. Recently, Italy had fines of up to £50,000 each day for non-compliance. Any such fines will be taken out of the Northern Ireland Budget. The Committee for the Environment specifically highlighted that issue. Northern Ireland seems to experience most problems with environmental EU Directives. However, Mr Haughey indicated to the Committee that many problems had arisen during direct rule.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has a core responsibility to ensure that Departments implement EU Directives, and it has created a database in order to keep track of that implementation. The Committee recommends that the database be brought up to date and be shared with the Assembly and the relevant Committees. The Committee welcomes a recent meeting between the Committee for the Environment and the Minister of the Environment, which brought that Committee up to speed on the current status of EU Directives. Furthermore, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should be working upstream and should be aware of EU Directives as they are being developed. It should be able to provide the Assembly with a 12-to-18-month forward programme of any EU legislation that it is expected to implement. Each Department should brief its Committee fully on current and future EU Directives, develop an implementation timetable and provide information on any likely infraction procedures.

The Committee considered its own role, as well as asking for the opinions of the Statutory Committees. The main issue that was highlighted by Committees was lack of information and communication from the relevant Departments on EU issues, particularly on Directives. It is important to provide high-quality, relevant and timely information. When making decisions on EU issues or attempting to influence a particular point, it is essential that the correct information be available. Given that matters are moving so fast in Europe, it is important to ensure that information is up to date.

Despite matters moving so fast in Europe, it can take two to three years for a policy or law to move from the discussion stage in the European Commission to a decision that either the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament, or both, are ready to endorse and agree. Therefore, it is important to work upstream and to be prepared for new issues that may not come into effect for another two or three years.

Despite having a co-ordination role in a cross-departmental area, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has made it clear that it is not its role to ensure that Departments provide timely, clear and accurate information to Committees. Although it is not the role of the Committee of the Centre to say how other Departments should operate, the Committee nevertheless urges those Departments to put in place structures to ensure that Committees are kept informed both on current developments and on issues that may be two to three years upstream. The Committee also urges Statutory Committees to ensure that such structures are put in place.

The Committee recommends that, in its co-ordinating role, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister establishes a central resource that brings together all relevant information on EU issues and explains their context and implications. Indeed, many of the non-governmental organisations also asked for such a resource to be made available to them. As the Federation of Small Businesses said:

"However late in the day policies come to the political table, they are coming to the business table even later."

The Committee also recommends that the Assembly take a more proactive role and that the Assembly Commission consider the costs and the benefits of staffing an Assembly information desk in Brussels, which several Statutory Committees suggested. There may be merit in exploring whether a joint office could be set up with Scotland, which is also considering a similar project.

Alternatively, such an office could be based in the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. It is unlikely that the Brussels office could provide the necessary level of service to the Assembly and its Committees. By that I mean information to aid them in the scrutiny of the work of the Executive and Departments in European affairs. It is, after all, an office for the Executive, not the Assembly.

The Committee also recommends that the Assembly’s research and library service develops its specialist service to assist the Committees in taking a more proactive role in dealing with EU legislation and policy. Another proactive measure, again suggested by the Statutory Committees, is that Members should receive EU familiarisation training specifically based around their Statutory Committee responsibilities.

The final recommendation dealing with the Assembly concerns the role of the Committee of the Centre. The Committee considered in detail and spent considerable time debating its own structures and role. The Committee has a wide remit, and the area of EU affairs is only one item within that. The Committee has found it impossible to devote sufficient time to EU affairs.

In addition, the evidence from many diverse organisations, ranging from the academic sector to the business sector, suggests that the lack of a dedicated European affairs committee within the Assembly is seen as a weakness in allowing full scrutiny of cross-cutting EU policies and legislation. For example, the Committee has not had time to devote to the ongoing Future of Europe debate — a debate that may change the role of regional authorities in Europe. Furthermore, much of the evidence suggests that an EU affairs committee could provide the focal point for the concerns of local groups and organisations involved in Europe. It could provide an important two-way link between the MEPs, as representatives of the European Parliament, and Members of the Assembly.

After much consideration and some frank discussions, the Committee agreed that there should be a dedicated Standing Committee on EU affairs. However, the Committee recognises that the practicalities of establishing such a committee means that it is unlikely to occur within the lifetime of this Assembly. In the interim, the Committee will establish a subcommittee to consider in detail the remit, workload and membership of such a Committee.

I conclude — Members will be glad to hear — by making a final reference to what the Committee hopes will be achieved if the recommendations in this report are implemented by all concerned, and not only by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

Throughout the inquiry, the Committee focused on the approach being taken and debated whether that approach was the best for Northern Ireland. As I have already made clear, the Committee is not convinced that it is. At present, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister’s approach is narrow. It deals with the needs of the Executive and the Departments and is centred on using formal channels at the expense of informal networks.

The Committee believes that its recommendations, if implemented, will result in a professional, effective and co-operative approach to Europe. Such an approach will involve not only the formal players — the Executive, the Assembly and the MEPs — but also local government and non-governmental bodies.

It will make use of the vast experience of Europe that exists outside Government. It will build institutional capacity and will focus on gaining maximum returns for what is essentially — in an EU context — a small region with limited resources. I therefore recommend the report to the Assembly.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 1:30 pm, 8th April 2002

I do not intend to introduce a time limit at this stage, but I would be grateful if Members would limit their speeches to 10 minutes.

Photo of Ken Robinson Ken Robinson UUP

I support the report and commend it to the Assembly. Its 43 recommendations and over 300 pages reflect our enthusiasm for the task. I hope that it also reflects the detail of our investigation.

I congratulate the Chairperson on the businesslike manner in which he chaired the meetings, irrespective of which city we found ourselves in. I also express my appreciation to the Principal Clerk, the Committee Clerks and their colleagues for the professional and patient manner in which they approached the task; not forgetting the invaluable advice given by our researcher and our adviser.

This report, if endorsed by the Assembly, will represent a significant step forward by Northern Ireland plc in its relationship with the EU and its institutions. Sometimes, when dealing with Europe, it is possible to feel like the English tourist who arrived in Ballymena, asked the way to Antrim, and was told "If I were you I would not start from here". There may be other reasons for not wanting to go to Antrim, but we will not go into those. I am sure that Antrim is a delightful place, and I am sure that you will speak up for it, Mr Deputy Speaker.

To date, as highlighted in the document, most contacts have centred on the financial largesse of the EU in its funding of agricultural, structural or peace and reconciliation schemes. Until now, Northern Ireland has been a beneficiary of funding that has been, in general, designed to overcome our distinctive, historical and economic problems. Those days will cease in 2006, which will coincide with the enlargement of the community. Those two events should encourage the Assembly and this region to plan ahead in an inclusive and coherent manner. We must learn to become selective if we are to become effective.

The recommendations in the report are a signpost, which, if followed, will enable the whole community to benefit from the opportunities that an enlarged Europe will bring. They will also allow us to deal more effectively with the threats that such a change could bring.

In our approach to this investigation we chose to map out how EU policy might be influenced. To help us to put this vital aspect of the report into context, we visited our sister institutions, which had already evolved their own distinctive approach mechanisms to the EU.

The House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, the House of Lords European Scrutiny Committee and the Scottish Parliament identified key points and critical stages at which EU policy might be positively influenced. The common factor indicated by all was the primacy of the member state. Therefore, it is vital that, as highlighted in Recommendation 2, linkages between the Whitehall Departments, Northern Ireland Departments and the corresponding Assembly Committees be in place. Dare I suggest that they be in place by September 2002?

Equally important is recommendation 8, which states that

"structures are put in place which ensure that the Departments engage at an early stage with the relevant Assembly Committees in areas where a distinct policy need and position for Northern Ireland is being considered."

The Chairperson drew attention to that vital and fundamental point.

The need is reinforced by recommendation 12, which states that advice and guidance could be provided via a contact point in each Department to its corresponding Assembly Committee and other interested parties.

Recommendation 14 builds upon that more productive approach and suggests that an Assembly information desk be set up in Brussels. Many who submitted evidence favoured the idea, including those from three Committees of the Assembly.

The advent of the devolved institution has presented us with an opportunity — after 30 years of relative inertia — to influence EU policy. Given that 80% of the Programme for Government is affected by EU policy and 60% of Northern Ireland legislation emanates from Brussels, that is vital.

The experiences of the Scottish, Catalonian and Flemish regional representatives point firmly to the necessity of using formal and informal networks in a planned and coherent manner. They also highlighted the need to focus selectively on areas in which results can be obtained — an approach that I have characterised as being "selective to be effective", which encapsulates the essence of what must be done.

That approach relies on the willingness of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and all other Departments to accept the principle of inclusiveness by incorporating the existing skills and knowledge that non-governmental organisations have developed in European matters. That wealth of experience and reservoir of information must be tapped into. That approach found widespread support from consultees, which the Committee highlights in recommendations 7, 9, 11, 23 and 24.

Recommendation 29 refers to co-ordinated networking and access to the Brussels office by organisations such as the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe (NICE), local government and non-governmental organisations. All our contacts, whether regional observers or not, pointed to the need to involve a range of key players in the task of influencing the EU policy makers as far upstream as possible. Mr Nicholson, in his discussions with the Committee, also pointed out the need to monitor the progress of the policies as they come downstream, as they constantly change due to pressure from other interest groups and lobbyists before emerging as fully-fledged Directives.

The Committee also favoured the involvement of Assembly Members and civil servants in a programme to raise awareness of EU matters. It was encouraged to develop strong policies to organise secondments by those to whom it spoke in Brussels and Edinburgh. Given the backlog that Northern Ireland has inherited, the Committee felt that the fast-tracking of staff for short-term secondments and careful placement to maximise, on their return to Northern Ireland, the benefits of their experience should be investigated thoroughly in order to make the process as worthwhile as possible, both to the participants and the Administration. Those thoughts are contained in recommendations 37, 38 and 39.

During the Committee’s consultations, concern was expressed that the situation was one of reactive drift, in which responses were tempered to head off infraction proceedings, to dispense EU funding and to introduce the necessary legislation to comply with EU Directives. The Committee is convinced that a proactive framework must be established at all levels. It is no longer a "can do" situation; it is a "must do" scenario in which direction must be given. The Committee’s conclusion, which is shared by many contributors, is that a junior Minister must be given responsibility for EU matters. That vital step must be implemented sooner rather than later. It may be reinforced in the interim by the formation of a subcommittee of the Committee of the Centre to focus on EU issues. My preference is that the opportunity to form a European affairs committee should be a central consideration of any review of current practice in the Administration, and that is envisaged in recommendations 10 and 26.

I welcome the establishment of the European Policy Co-Ordination Unit but agree with recommendation 24 that it must be properly resourced if it is to become effective.

During the Committee’s consultation with other regional representatives, it was apparent that they all compile formal and informal lists of contacts that may be useful to them for selective and continuous lobbying. It is vital that Northern Ireland develop such a comprehensive list of sympathetic and influential movers and shakers. A co-operative and proactive approach, inclusive of governmental contacts, is suggested in recommendations 29 and 31.

The role, influence and expertise of MEPs must also be connected to everything that I have said. I was not convinced that any or all of them were being actively sought out regularly. The impression that I was given was that, in a crisis, MEPs become central figures, but that once the crisis is over they become marginalized and bureaucracy takes over once more. Recommendations 17, 23 and 34 draw attention to that important point. With the enlargement of the EU, this will become a critical consideration. A community of such a size requires less bureaucracy and more democracy if the machine is not to grind to a halt.

The flow of vital information, both upwards and downwards in the system, is crucial to influencing issues at an early stage. Recommendations 41 and 42 refer to explanatory memoranda from the Cabinet Office being shared with the Assembly, its relevant Committees and, in part, with other non-Government interests. Those memoranda are worthy of scrutiny.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

The centralisation of resource capabilities referred to in recommendations 4, 5 and 13 is a useful method of ensuring that existing and expected information and impacts are set in a meaningful context. That will better inform people about the implications, whether they be opportunities or threats.

Throughout the deliberations of the Committee, there was a great deal of cross-party agreement and co-operation. We can all see how fundamental and central this aspect of the life of the Assembly is in dealing with European matters. We cannot afford not to implement the key recommendations in the report, and I appeal to Members to proactively support the drive that the Committee has set before the House — [Interruption] — in its report.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Social Democratic and Labour Party

I apologise sincerely for that interruption. It was a wake-up call, and I got more than I bargained for.

I support the report and its recommendations. I will start where my Colleague Ken Robinson left off, by reusing the words "fundamental" and "central". We have all accepted that Europe has had a massive influence on our lives, and everyone would agree that that influence has mostly been for the better. Many people in our community are very grateful to Europe for the support of the peace and reconciliation fund. That is only one example.

At the core of the report — and this is an issue for the Assembly today, tomorrow, next week and next year — is the seriousness with which we want to approach the European Union and with which we want it to take us. How seriously do we want to regard the major influence on our lives that the European Union has become?

Until now, Europe has been seen as a honeypot; a place where funding — sometimes soft funding — could be found. Europe has been a source of cash and, unfortunately, it has been viewed as a bit like Santa Claus at Christmas. Our participation was passive and receptive in many ways as we held out the bowl for the funds, whether regional funding, social development funding or other types. We were very receptive to that bounty. However, that was a short-term approach. It enabled us to get back on our feet after some very difficult years, but we must now move on and develop a more mature relationship with Europe. We must be able to influence the evolution of European Union policies and strategies at a much earlier stage. As some of my Colleagues suggested earlier, we should be influencing policies not only at the early stages, but throughout their evolution and implementation. We must do that in a proactive way, compared to our previous passive approach.

In the European context, some of us have been taught a salutary lesson in how the drift and estrangement of the population in Southern Ireland created circumstances in which the public felt uninvolved — to the point that they voted against the Nice Treaty, which was unfortunate. We do not want to get to that stage, and I do not think that we will if we take this report, and some of the recommendations emerging from it, with the seriousness that it merits.

When we discuss Europe, parties could disagree on many points — Ken Robinson touched wisely and informatively on that matter. As the report was evolving, there was broad consensus, and the Committee sought, for the large part, a common ground. Despite Northern Ireland’s limited population of 1·6 million or 1·7 million, there was a realisation that the Assembly could influence Europe and have access to the key players there. That was brought home to the Committee during its visit to Brussels. We realised that we could copy some of the best practice that we saw, and in that context I was particularly impressed with the Scottish system’s organisation and experience. I have no doubt that the Scottish representation dressed up their experiences and did not tell us about all their difficulties, but they produced a positive and efficient image. We will need to influence Europe as enlargement unfolds — if we do not, enlargement will swallow us up. It is one thing to be a region with a population of 1·6 million or 1·7 million in a community of approximately 300 million, but if the community’s population almost doubles, to over 500 million, Northern Ireland will be a very small fish indeed.

The big issue is the need for greater contact with, and engagement in, Europe. We need to get Northern Ireland Ministers to Europe, attending meetings where possible. In that context, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development had useful contact with Europe during the recent agriculture crises. During the inquiry, the Committee felt that all our Ministers should find ways to attend European Council meetings. We saw the need to connect the Assembly with Europe. We do not wish the report to be the beginning and end of that — we want a regular drip feed to the Assembly from Europe, and from the Assembly, so that it can influence Europe.

Colleagues mentioned the need for a European affairs committee. Although the Committee is aware of some of the difficulties that may be created, and the fact that Members are already stretched in their attempts to cover all the current Committees, members agreed that the vacuum must be filled. We need to take Europe seriously. I will not dwell on that at length, but I have already mentioned the possible designation of a Minister or junior Minister with a European affairs brief. Local government organisations, industry and business must be better connected. Overall, we need to establish a multi-level, multifaceted approach to Europe. Although the Committee welcomed the opening of an office in Brussels, it saw it as much too narrow, and more bureaucratic than political. We need a wider approach, which is well co-ordinated and involves all our players. The Committee accepts readily that the Executive are the big player and that individual Ministers and Departments follow very closely.

However, we emphasise — and I am perhaps repeating what has been mentioned already — that the Assembly does have a role to play in European affairs and should be involved in the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. We realise that Members of the European Parliament have considerable influence and that there should be some method to facilitate regular contact with them. Members of the Committee of the Regions should be linked into some type of formal or informal network. In addition, we could make contact with the European Economic and Social Committee. There is also, of course, the wider community.

As the Committee carried out its inquiry, it discovered an obvious need to get out of the silos — I am thinking especially about the various Government Departments — and make partnership and co-operation work on European issues, in the interest of our whole community. A comprehensive approach would ensure that we achieve the maximum influence in Europe and receive the maximum benefits from it.

There appeared to be a laissez-faire attitude in many Departments and sections of Government. Often, matters were allowed to drift, and because European issues sometimes had to be dealt with by several Departments, the process was like musical chairs — everyone deferred to someone else.

We must move from that passive attitude into a proactive, dare I say, aggressive approach to Europe. We have seen what other nations have done — and we only have to look South of the border to see what the Irish Republic has done as regards its influence in Europe. Equally, the inquiry noticed that some regions had dramatically influenced Europe and had served their own interests extremely well.

As I mentioned earlier, we need a network to gather information that goes beyond the formal arrangements. I was particularly impressed that, even though there are few secondments from Northern Ireland to Europe, several natives who have been placed in Brussels, or who have worked there, have a considerable resource of information and influence. Therefore they must be included in any informal network that we create.

If I could dwell for a moment on the secondment of staff — [Interruption].

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 1:45 pm, 8th April 2002

I must draw to the Member’s attention that he has had in excess of 10 minutes.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am nearly finished. I suggest that we take seriously the opportunity to second staff to Europe. I will leave it at that.

The Committee was concerned about the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe, which has done a wonderful job over the years. However, once again I will not dwell on that.

Overall, the report is an excellent initial work of the Committee, and we will have to revisit this subject from time to time and deal with many of the recommendations in greater detail. We will also have to examine the cost implications of the recommendations. It would be foolish to publish the report today; blandly accept all the recommendations; put a pink ribbon round it, and go away. We must review the issue.

Some Colleagues are concerned that the word "accepts" in the amendment is a bit stronger than the word "notes", but I would be comfortable with the amendment if it were set in the context of revisiting the subject and examining each recommendation in greater depth.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I too support the report. I commend the Committee for the work that has been done. I thank the Clerks, the Committee staff and research staff who ably assisted us. It was a very interesting and worthwhile exercise, and the vast scope of the report and the number of recommendations made showed how seriously the Committee took its work and how much interest there was in the subject.

The report, and the evidence contained in it, clearly demonstrate the absence of a coherent strategy in our dealings with Europe. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has yet to put in place a co-ordinated approach to the EU, both within the Assembly’s jurisdiction and across the islands, through the all-Ireland implementation bodies and the North/South Ministerial Council. That was probably best displayed by the lack of co-ordination with other stakeholders in going forward with the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels. Ken Robinson and Alisdair McDonnell referred to the Committee’s broad consensus in agreeing the recommendations and the approach needed by the Assembly to Europe. That is correct. Regardless of whether one is a Euro-sceptic, a Europhile, or shares one of the many opinions between those positions, the majority of our legislation emanates from Europe. That has a massive impact on how we do our business here.

It is clear from the report and our investigation that we need early warning on EU legislative proposals and infraction proceedings that will affect us. We must know which EU Directives we need to act on and their timetables for implementation. We can see the risk with respect to the environmental Directives, in particular, and the serious potential to impose financial penalties on us.

The Assembly must guard against the risk that its approach to the EU might become merely an adjunct to that of the British Labour Party, which is working its way through Westminster, Scotland and Wales. Regardless of which side of the House they come from, many Members agree that an individual, distinct approach would benefit us.

Another weakness that I identified in the approach from OFMDFM — and it emerges in some of the evidence of the report — is the failure to develop an all-Ireland approach to EU matters. Unlike many member states, we have a unique Executive and institutional link to another member state. Not only should we benefit and learn from the success of the South in its dealings with the European Union, but in our approach to the European Union we should reflect our formal institutional and Executive link to the South. I hope that the idea and development of a common strategy could be advanced at North/South Ministerial Council level.

I support the idea of setting up a Standing Committee on EU affairs. As a result of our inquiry and our examination of how other institutions’ EU Committees have operated, there is a strong argument for a Committee with responsibility for both the scrutiny of important legislation and conducting broad inquiries into EU matters and their impact on Northern Ireland affairs. However, given the pressure that there is on the Assembly’s Committee system, the membership and attendance of our Committees and the number of Committees and Ad Hoc Committees, we must ensure that we do not increase that stress. We must ensure that we do not create a Committee that cannot function due to the workload of other Committees. It must be an effective Committee; it must be able to deal effectively with, and scrutinise, our relationship with the EU and that between the Executive and the EU.

I regret to say that the lack of strategic planning by OFMDFM appears to have been a feature of its approach. That is reflected in many of the recommendations and in much of the commentary of previous Members who spoke. A lack of communication has been another regrettable feature. Those features must be reversed. I accept the amendment to change the report and its recommendations from being "noted" to being "accepted" by the Executive.

The report must be taken seriously, because reports can be absorbed without an effective adoption of the recommendations therein. The report was a serious attempt to look, comment and reflect on our relationship with the EU. It was an attempt to recommend to the Executive what the Committee feels should be done about that relationship. That must be done if we are to have an effective relationship with the EU that would benefit not only those whom we represent in the North, but everyone on the island, through all-Ireland institutional links. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Séan Neeson Séan Neeson Alliance

I welcome the report. I also accept the amendment.

Such a report has been long overdue, and the enlargement of the European Union will be a significant development that will affect our everyday lives.

When the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment was carrying out its investigation into energy it realised the impact that the EU was having on energy policy throughout Europe, including the regions. The Committee receives all European Directives that affect it.

I was a member of the Committee of the Regions for several years, albeit as an alternate. However, it was a significant role. I congratulate those who have been newly appointed to the Committee from Northern Ireland and wish them well during their period in office.

The Committee of the Centre’s recommendations are very welcome. Only two political parties from here are involved in the membership of the Committee of the Regions. Four members, two full members and two alternates, would make it broader. In present Assembly circumstances it would include a Member from the DUP and a Member from Sinn Féin. The Assembly needs to take that on board.

I am a voluntary member of the board of the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe (NICE), and I share the Committee’s concerns about the treatment of NICE. When we had an office in Brussels, the cost of running it was about one third of the cost of running the new office, and that needs to be considered. I do not resent the fact that money is being invested in such an important office, but it is essential that its work be monitored closely. The fact that the office costs three times more would be acceptable if there was clear evidence of greater achievements or a higher quality of work, but, going by the report, the Committee did not find such a quantum leap.

The Committee expresses concerns that the experience of NICE has not been used or built on. As a voluntary member of that board I share those concerns, and it is time that they came out into the open, because the board has faced considerable problems recently.

Over the years NICE has built a substantial foundation of contacts, information, skills and knowledge that has been put at the disposal of the public and private sectors in Northern Ireland. The benefits from the organisation continue, yet there has not been a single contact from the head of the Executive’s Office in Brussels to discuss that experience or to seek benefit from it, despite the clear assurances given by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister at the official opening. They stated clearly that the office would work in an open manner, co-operating and communicating with all sectors, and yet for an organisation that was established through a cross-party initiative, there has been absolute silence. That silence sends a clear and resounding message. How loudly it speaks of the attitude of some in the Civil Service. They have more than tripled the cost to taxpayers and have not even had the common courtesy to contact the organisation that has invested so much time and expertise.

It would be bad enough if it were simply a lack of courtesy. It is worse than that. Not only has the head of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels never contacted the board or the staff of NICE, but there is a clear pattern of behaviour that the Minister should take steps to change substantially. I also note that the Chairperson of the Committee, Mr Poots, recently asked in the House when NICE would begin to be treated in a more honourable way. I echo that question. A considerable amount of successful work was undertaken with genuine, constructive and positive motivation for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland. The attempt that was made to bury that work and cast NICE aside was despicable.

It is time for the officials in that area to cease their petty-minded approach and meet with the staff of NICE, who have acted with integrity and character throughout this shameful period.

There is no doubt that Europe is having a greater impact on our everyday lives. I welcome the fact that Marks and Spencer in Belfast now has a counter that accepts the euro, and several other retail establishments in Northern Ireland are doing the same. The question is not whether the euro will be introduced in the UK but when. I hope that the Assembly can focus on the issues that are at hand concerning the development and enlargement of the European Union.

I would like to thank the Clerk, the Committee and the specialist adviser for the work that they have put into the report, which I consider to be significant. I also want to put on record my thanks and support for the efforts of the junior Minister, Mr Haughey. If the Assembly is to nominate a Minister for Europe, I cannot think of a better person.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 2:00 pm, 8th April 2002

I shall declare an interest. I am a former head of the European Commission office in Northern Ireland, and I remain actively involved in a variety of bodies concerned with Europe and Northern Ireland.

I welcome the report. It is obvious that a great deal of work has gone into it. It is excellent that the report opens up the European debate, which has, sadly, been in its infancy in Northern Ireland for far too long. It is timely, and its recommendations are very welcome. The Committee’s "knuckle-rapping" on the work of the Executive and OFMDFM and its approach to Northern Ireland is valuable, and its recommendations for changing that are very appropriate. [Interruption].

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I wish to consider the conclusions of the report. Dr McDonnell asked if we were taking the European Union seriously. I go further than that and openly criticise the Executive for not taking the European Union seriously. The report suggests that the Executive should get its European house in order and realise that it is not a chateau for the elite in the Executive and Government Departments.

It should be an open house for all members of the public and the various sectors in Northern Ireland. That has been totally disregarded. There has been a lack of communication and consultation with the experts in that area. The three MEPs are pretty long in the tooth and long in understanding European Union affairs, yet they have not been properly consulted. Members of the Committee of the Regions, members of the Economic and Social Committee, non-governmental organisations, farming unions, trade unions and business sectors are not being properly consulted on what we should be doing on European Union affairs. Why is that being ignored? What sort of attitude is there in Government Departments and in the Executive that those issues are being ignored, and people’s expertise is being ignored?

I want to quote some comments, which I found incredible, made by officials from OFMDFM justifying the problems that they have in trying to convince Departments to get involved in European affairs. One of them said that

"A major problem is that many Departments have not yet realised that they need our services, and that they need to get into Europe."

Wait a minute. Think about that. It is said that many Departments have not realised that they need to get into Europe. First, could someone please tell those people that we are in Europe now. Secondly, we have been in Europe since 1973. Where have those civil servants been since 1973 if they did not realise that we were already in Europe?

It is stated that officials noted that resources were needed. That comment relates to the implementation of Directives. As Members know, there has been a backlog of Directives, especially in relation to the environment. As the Chairperson said, it is costing the Italians around £50,000 a day. I would love a response from the Ministers — [Interruption].

A Member:

It is costing the Italians 50,000 euros.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

Excuse me. Thank you. I would love a response from Ministers stating how much the backlog of Directives is costing Northern Ireland. Ministers are looking at monitoring that, but I would like to have a figure to see how much it is costing us because we do not have our house in order on implementing the Directives. The excuse is that

"There are significant issues concerning implementation of our Directives … we did inherit a major problem there."

I assume that refers to devolution. Another excuse is that

"It is difficult to obtain the necessary resources and legal expertise. We must solve this problem as quickly as possible."

That is very good, but it is 25 years too late. We are talking about the legal expertise and resources necessary to implement Directives into the law of Northern Ireland. We were supposed to have that in place when we joined the European Union, and not so many years later. The excuses are legal expertise and resources, and I suppose that we should appreciate that those aspects are being recognised now. However, we have been in the European Union for a quarter of a century, and some people need to wake up to that fact.

I shall highlight a few valuable recommendations. There is the recommendation that a Standing Committee on European affairs should be established. Members may recall that the Committee that looked into the impact of devolution made that recommendation. But what happened about it? Zilch. When it came to the formation of the Committee of the Centre, it was assumed that we would have a committee on European affairs, a Minister on European affairs, a committee on equality and a Minister on equality. Suddenly the tables were turned, and we found ourselves with a Committee of the Centre and two junior Ministers covering the works. How can we possibly take Europe seriously if it is done in that way? We back the recommendation to have a Standing Committee.

Greater use of expertise is vital. The expertise of all the representatives in the European scene is important, as well as the expertise in non-governmental areas and that of the people who have been working with European peace money, the business sector and the trade unions. It is vital for that expertise to be channelled properly.

Another issue is ministerial attendance. The Committee is disappointed that we are losing out on key opportunities to influence European policy-making. How long have we been doing that? Ministers from Northern Ireland should be at those ministerial meetings.

I want to add two more recommendations that I did not see in the report, and the Chairperson will hardly be surprised by that. Something has been ignored.

On this occasion it is not the euro, it is young people. Members will appreciate the influence of young people. The Executive have not done enough to get the debate on European awareness into the public domain in order to get the public more actively interested in European affairs — especially young people.

Secondments should not only be for executives or senior officials of the Departments. They should be for non-governmental organisations and they should be for young people. There is in-service training — stages — which is a superb course in the European Commission for graduates — that is what started me on the European road. Why is that sort of thing not being pushed to allow more young people to get involved?

I realise that I am running out of time, but I have much more to say. I want to look at departmental priorities. I was flabbergasted by the section at the end of the report in which Departments were asked to categorise their European Union affairs as high or medium priorities. I want to go through a few of those. The EQUAL programme and lifelong learning are only medium priorities for the Department for Employment and Learning. Access to environmental information is a medium priority for the Department of the Environment. Wait until you hear this — the Department for Social Development rates non-governmental organisations and the voluntary and community sector as medium priorities. Wow.

Economic and monetary union, as well as consumer protection are medium priorities for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and investment. Organic farming and food labelling are medium priorities for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Department. Last, but not least, the Department of Education only has two areas of responsibility for European affairs, and both are medium priority. What is going on? Does the Department of Education not realise that we are in Europe to stay? All those Departments should realise that.

I have had my say, although I would have liked longer. We have to start taking Europe seriously. Politics aside, we are in the business of doing what is good for Northern Ireland. Unless the parties in the Executive that are not interested in being a part of Europe are prepared to say that they want us to withdraw from it, they should be working hard to ensure that we reap the benefits and also offer our expertise to others in the European Union.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP 2:15 pm, 8th April 2002

I welcome the debate, and I want to congratulate the Chairperson and Members of the Committee for producing such an extensive report. It is substantial and impressive. In the detail in which it has examined the topic, it is one of the most far-reaching reports published by the Assembly to date. It serves as an example of how an Assembly Committee — a non-Statutory Committee, by the way — holds the Government to account. More importantly, it finds the Government wanting on the key issues that they ought to have been dealing with in the past three years.

The inquiry caught OFMDFM napping on the serious and important issue of Europe, and the approach of the devolved Government to European issues. In the annex we have the first published paper by OFMDFM on European issues, which shows that the Committee was able to force the Government belatedly to respond to some of the key issues that have been before them for the past three years.

One got the impression from the OFMDFM submission that it was a case of bolting the stable door after the horse had gone. There seemed to be several issues that it was trying to catch up on or that might have been reported to it — not necessarily by Committees members. It appears that OFMDFM was trying to put a brave face on the situation, and to plug an embarrassing leak.

As Ms Morrice said, it is to be hoped that the report serves as a serious wake-up call to the Government here on how they intend to deal with Europe. If European policy is not scrutinised closely, European Directives will be imposed on Northern Ireland that are contrary to the will of our people. It is important that Northern Ireland has its say on those Directives, that when they are just ideas in the minds of bureaucrats and Eurocrats they are shaped according to our wishes. It is important that we have early warning and early influence in Europe. I agree with the Committee’s view that our Government must be proactive on Europe. The scathing criticisms in the report show that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has been at best, reactive and, at worst — which is most of the time — inactive on European issues. A plush office in Brussels must not be the be-all and end-all of Government policy, but I get the impression that that is the role that the Northern Ireland Executive seek for themselves. They have ticked the box, they have an office in Brussels, but the Executive must do considerably more than that. It is to be hoped that they will start to deliver on some of the promises made, as there is very little to show for their work over the past three years.

Criticism of the Executive has been universal. They were not given the most auspicious of starts, given that when the Assembly travelled to Brussels in 1998, some members of Sinn Féin used the opportunity to attack the paymasters and to insult the people of Northern Ireland by their approach. The Executive could nevertheless have built on that low point, but unfortunately they have not done that.

I refer to page 199 of the report and to the written submission of Mr Nigel Smyth, the director of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Northern Ireland. He states that

"a number of key issues are of concern to the business community. These include the following: the lack of information on the existing Northern Ireland strategy towards, and activities focused at, the European Union; the apparently ad hoc and unfocused approach to European issues; the difference in governance arrangements between Northern Ireland and the European Union; and the additionality issues — just how important is it and how does it impact on Northern Ireland’s ability to access EU funds."

CBI’s criticisms are echoed by the Federation of Small Businesses, which also made a written submission. Time forbids listing all its recommendations.

Both Ms Morrice and Mr Neeson noted some criticisms voiced by the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe (NICE). It is important to record the criticisms of Mr John Kennedy, the chief executive of NICE. His recommendations, on page 244 of the report, stressed that

"Existing approaches, which are based on the immediate administrative agendas of Departments, are not likely to realise the maximum potential. We believe that it is necessary to fundamentally review this approach and to build on the learning available."

There are major gaps in the Executive’s approach to European issues.

The Department of Agriculture and Regional Development must spend 46·7% of its budget according to European Directives and yet, it is clear to me as a member of the Committee for Agriculture and Regional Development, that it is difficult for Committee members to grasp some of the European issues that arise. That is because the Minister does not bring those issues to the Committee; officials relate them in an ad hoc fashion and on many occasions bounce them on the Committee. The Committee is told that if it does not act immediately the money will be lost, so there is no co-ordinated, strategic approach for dealing with money, for which we are accountable as public representatives.

All Committees must have a much more detailed knowledge of European Directives, the way in which they come to us and how the Government influence those Directives at the beginning. The report shows that all the Committees are concerned at the apparent lack of knowledge of the role of the European Union, and its extent, on our affairs. It is a serious criticism of the House and the institutions that have been established that there is no driving force to change that situation.

In his submission the European Commission’s representative, Mr Jim Dougal said that he is prepared to arrange training seminars. However, it is not his job to do that — it is the job of the House and the officials here to put in place those recommendations and training mechanisms. We do not want to get our steer totally from the European Commission’s representative. Members may not necessarily share his agenda, which accords with that of the Commission, and it is important that we ensure that our approach is in the interests of the people whom we represent, rather than in the interests of the Commission with its own detailed agenda.

There are some other criticisms to which I would like to refer. I note that only one MEP made a written submission to the report, although Jim Nicholson made himself available to the Committee for an extensive verbal briefing. Both MEPs had the same stark criticisms, and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister must address those instead of just taking them on the chin, because they are serious. For example, in his submission on page 284 of the report, Dr Paisley said that he would like the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister

"to identify the various EU policy papers they are currently lobbying the Commission on; and how they are representing the opinions of the Assembly Committees as they express views on matters and policies that are relevant to EU matters."

That does not seem to be being done, and it is essential that OFMDFM picks up on that.

The report gives an interesting insight into the role of OFMDFM and its links with MEPs:

Dr Paisley continues:

"Critically your committee inquiry should consider why there is no co-ordination between the Departments and the MEPs. There are no regular briefings and there is no strategic approach in general from the Executive. I continue to make approaches directly and receive the briefing papers that the Scottish, English and Welsh MEPs receive on behalf of the Government Departments there. Quite frankly the Northern Ireland Departments and the Executive are not at the same game. In fact, in my experience it is now more difficult to get information from the Northern Ireland Departments about European matters than at any previous time due to the defensive nature of the ministerial run Departments."

That is a stark criticism, and, brushing aside its political content, it is a very serious administrative criticism, which the Office of the First and the Deputy First Ministers should address seriously. Ken Robinson, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, also made that point, and I am happy to echo it.

Finally, I wish to draw Members’ attention to the comments of Mr John Simpson, Queen’s University and the Ulster Farmers’ Union, all of which make the same criticisms that there is neither the scrutiny, the strategic vision nor the proper policy approach to Europe that there should be. The Assembly is grateful to the Committee of the Centre for carrying out this brave task and for identifying the issues in the way in which it has.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. We have now arrived at the moment of interruption.

The debate stood suspended.