Review of Public Administration

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 5th December 2006.

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Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker 10:30 am, 5th December 2006

The Business Committee agreed that the House may sit until 6.00 pm to debate the motion on the review of public administration (RPA). I have further consulted with the party Whips, who have agreed that the first round of Members’ speeches should be limited to 15 minutes, with subsequent speeches being limited to 10 minutes.

Before the debate begins, I wish to remind the House that, although Members will have made declarations in the Register of Members’ Interests, given the subject of today’s debate, they should also be aware of the requirement of Standing Order 29(f), which relates to the need:

“Before taking part in any debate or proceeding of the Assembly,” for a Member to:

“declare any interest, financial or otherwise, which is relevant to that debate”.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Why was the amendment that Mr Maskey and Mr O’Dowd tabled, which is effectively a direct negative of the motion, selected when the DUP’s proposed amendment to yesterday’s motion, which added to the motion, was rejected?

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

As I said yesterday, I will not discuss my reasons for rejecting any amendments. That is not convention. The amendment is not a direct negative. That is my decision. The amendment expands on the motion.

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I want to raise an issue that occurred in the House yesterday. It is important that it be raised. I am content for you, Madam Speaker, to deal with it today or in the future. There is nothing wrong with Members having a bit of banter during debates. Sometimes, it can add to the debate. However, for a Member to mislead the House and to tell an untruth is totally different. I refer to the words of the deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Danny Kennedy, when he was making his winding-up speech after yesterday’s debate. I shall quote briefly from yesterday’s Hansard for your information, Madam Speaker. Referring to my colleague Nelson McCausland, he said:

“It would have been all very well for him to do so, had it not been for the fact that his party, during the negotiations at St Andrews, made provisions for an Irish language Act”. — [Official Report, Vol 21, No 3, col 1, p46].

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

I have heard what you said, Mr Hay. Obviously, I have not had a chance to read Hansard this morning. I will check the report and get back to you on the matter.

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP

Madam Speaker, it was an untruth and was misleading to the House.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Order. I am on my feet, Mr Hay. I will consider the matter and I will make a ruling on it. I cannot do either until I have read Hansard. Thank you very much.

Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses serious concern about the potential of a seven council model to centralise services, remove jobs and resources from many areas and to underpin sectarianism and community division; and further calls on the Secretary of State to shelve present plans for super councils and allow the decision on future council arrangements to be taken by a restored Northern Ireland Assembly.

It is entirely ironic that, on the matter of the number of councils, the only party to stand by the British Government with regard to super-councils is Sinn Féin. It is particularly ironic, given that the leader of Sinn Féin reminded everybody in the Assembly that it was the role of the Northern Ireland Secretary of State and his predecessors to promote British interests in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Kathy Stanton Kathy Stanton Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Sinn Féin is not the only supporter of super-councils. Many other groups also support them.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Thank you very much, Ms Stanton, for that information. However, I am afraid that that was not a point of order.

Photo of Kathy Stanton Kathy Stanton Sinn Féin

The Member misrepresents many people.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Ms Stanton, I am on my feet. That was not a point of order. Thank you.

Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party

Ordinary people will be less concerned with the irony of that than with its implications for them. Those who stand to lose their jobs are obvious potential victims. Those who live in rural areas and will suffer as a consequence of centralisation are also obvious potential victims. The great majority of people, who will bear the brunt of an unequal distribution of the rates burden under a seven-council model, are also potential victims.

There is no argument about the need for the reform of local government. Ratepayers want less bureaucracy, greater efficiency and better delivery of public services. They expect a better system. However, they are entitled to one that is fair to all, regardless of where they live, and one that preserves local identity and some sense of place. However, the architects of the plan arrogantly ignore such a laudable aim and instead want to push their plan for super-councils through. Of course, the plan is not in the interests of the ordinary people who pay rates: it is a plan that will lead to centralisation, Balkanisation and confusion, and to an unfair and unequal distribution of the rates burden.

This is a plan to centralise public services on an unprecedented scale, and it will be at the expense of rural areas and the people who live there.

It is a plan that will move jobs, offices and resources away from our county towns, and it will leave rural areas, especially in the west, even further disadvantaged than they are at present. Sinn Féin is the only party here that wants the plan to go ahead, and if that happens, it will be a serious mistake that will leave most ratepayers disadvantaged and disempowered.

The plan is based on an English model for local government, and it is totally inappropriate for Northern Ireland. It will lead to the closure of offices, especially west of the Bann, and it will move the jobs and resources into a small number of our larger towns. We are also being asked to accept a model with three unionist-dominated councils and three nationalist-dominated councils. That will underpin the community division and polarisation that has served the people of Northern Ireland so badly.

The Government tell us about a strategic framework plan for a shared future in Northern Ireland, yet they are completely undermining it with a seven super-council model for local government with its inevitable consequence of trapped minorities. Those trapped minorities will be under the control of dominant and domineering oppressive majorities.

Instead of seizing the opportunity to deliver equality and promote good relations for future generations, the architects of that model will separate and segregate people on a crude sectarian basis. It should be clear to anyone who understands the depth of the division in our community and the importance of working towards a shared future that this is indeed a retrograde step.

Even now there are some councils in which some parties continue to keep political power and exclude other parties from top council posts. Despite this, and despite the danger of such practices being repeated in the new councils, Sinn Féin continues to take the word of the British Government on something as fundamental as the protection and safeguards for what will become permanently trapped minorities. The fact is that while other aspects such as the boundaries of these new councils and the number of councillors have received attention, no safeguards have been produced to ensure equality.

We all know from experience and history that there are no effective checks and balances in the democratic world that can deter an elite group that chooses to abuse its powers. That is why the SDLP rejects the seven-council model. There are better models, and we want to have in place a model that guarantees equality and is able to deliver services efficiently to people everywhere in Northern Ireland.

The very first claim in the Government’s own document, from those who designed the seven- council model, is that it would allow service operators to operate to common boundaries. In other words, all citizens within the new council boundaries would share the same health trusts and the same common boundaries for all key services. The health trusts, which take effect from 1 April 2007, will have completely different boundaries from those of the super-councils.

Take the example of people in Magherafelt who will go to Derry for their council services yet will not be able to go to Derry for their health and hospital services. They will have to go to Antrim or perhaps Belfast. People living in the new council area in the west will find that some of them will go to Derry for their health services, some will go to Craigavon and some will go to Antrim.

The result will be that the delivery of public services will be every bit as messy, confusing and chaotic as before. Serious questions must be asked about a Government that still want to steamroll ahead with a plan that is so badly in breach of their own standards of efficiency and equity.

Most Members will agree that the very least that the ratepayer is entitled to under any new configuration is a fair and equal distribution of the rates burden. As elected representatives, we already know how many people are worried about their rates bills and the threatened water charges. In addition to that, they now have the implications of the seven-council arrangement, and that is a cause for serious alarm.

Let me give Members the example of the new West Local Government District — to use the Government’s terminology — which includes the existing Fermanagh, Omagh, Dungannon and Cookstown council areas. Cookstown ratepayers are currently paying for a council loan of £1·55 million, Dungannon has a loan of £1·95 million, and Fermanagh ratepayers have a burden because there is a loan of £1·9 million, while Omagh has a £9 million loan.

In the proposed new council area, ratepayers will face a loan of £14·6 million. Given that the new councils will take over the liabilities of all existing councils, the rates bills in the old Cookstown, Dungannon and Fermanagh council areas will noticeably increase, while bills will decrease for the ratepayers in the old Omagh District Council area, because, as Members know, that is the way it will work. In any new council grouping where there is an exceptionally high burden of debt in one of the old council areas, that will become a debt burden on all of the ratepayers in the new council area.

If Members want a really shocking example, they should look at Magherafelt District Council. It currently has borrowings of £35,000 — very small indeed in comparison with the other councils — and as a result the rates there are among the lowest in Northern Ireland, at 120·67p. However, it will be in a new council area with Derry, which has a rate of 176·74p; Limavady, which has a rate of 152p; and Strabane, which has a rate of 149p. In the new council arrangement, the ratepayers of Magherafelt will face repayment on total borrowings of £31 million. Based on the estimates for the financial year 2004-05, that will mean a rates rise of 33%. To make that clear, a householder paying £1,000 a year will, because of this wonderful new model, be immediately faced with a rates bill of £1,330.

Those are examples of the serious flaws in the Government’s proposals, and they all add up to compelling reasons for those responsible for the plan to go back to the drawing board.

The sense of place and local identity that is important for communities everywhere in Northern Ireland is in danger of being stripped away. Fermanagh is well known as the one council area that has retained its townland names: all that is in jeopardy. Members from other constituencies and other district council areas will point to aspects of their own heritage that the local ratepayers do not want placed in jeopardy. All of our identities are shaped by local identity and a sense of place, and those are very important to all of us. In the new model, local identity and a sense of place are being vandalised — in the interests of what?

I have outlined the serious implications for ratepayers across Northern Ireland. I am interested to hear what the Sinn Féin representatives in my constituency have to say about ratepayers inheriting a debt from another council.

People have a shared pride in their area, and, in our divided community, that has empowered locally elected representatives to work for the common good. Many Members will know from their experiences that such shared pride has enabled those representatives to work for the common good in the interests of the wider community. Now, a direct rule Government and Sinn Féin are preparing to cast all that aside and expecting people to accept a model of local government that is neither local nor legitimate.

I fail to understand how elected representatives of local communities with any sense of responsibility — especially in the west — can possibly lend their support to the plan.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 10:45 am, 5th December 2006

I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after the first “Assembly” and insert:

“affirms its support for the Review of Public Administration and the new arrangements for strong and effective local government, within a seven council model, underpinned by power sharing, equality and social inclusion.”

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle

For the record, Members are aware that I am a member of Belfast City Council. As I listened to Tommy Gallagher, it was patently obvious that he has not spoken or listened carefully to some of his party colleagues. Two of them, Cllrs John O’Kane and Dermot Curran, sit on the political panel, which, as Members know, is at one end of the process of the Local Government Taskforce. Tommy Gallagher says that he wants a 15-council model. However, neither he nor any other Member has publicly or privately proffered a credible explanation for a larger number of councils making sense.

I simply ask Tommy Gallagher, or any other Member who talks about reducing the number of councils from 26 to 15, for example, to tell me and the general public which councils they want to retain or abolish? Do they want to retain Carrickfergus Borough Council? Tommy Gallagher should talk to his colleague, who is Deputy Mayor of Castlereagh Borough Council. On what I call a council league of shame, it has the worst under-representation of Catholics in the workforce, at only 6·8%. A similar disparity, both religious and gender-based, exists in other council areas in the Six Counties. I want anyone who argues for any particular configuration to provide a rationale for doing so.

Mr Gallagher also mentioned the argument surrounding the rates burden.

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

Mr Maskey referred to percentages of under-representation in the workforce. Can he give evidence from the Equality Commission statistics to show where there is not equality of opportunity?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I am not here as a witness, and I do not have to give evidence. However, Members will find that the recent Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) report provides a good indicator. My point is that there is religious disparity in the workforce. Not only is there Catholic under-representation, but the reverse is also the case in areas where there is under-representation of the Protestant population in the work-force. Sinn Féin wants a system of local government that ensures that such under-representation does not happen in any district council area. From day one, as Tommy Gallagher’s colleagues on the Local Govern-ment Taskforce will know, Sinn Féin has never been wedded to having a particular number of councils.

In fact, Sinn Féin resisted it from the very early stages. We were not prepared to plump for a figure of seven, six, 15, 12, or 11 councils; we were not prepared to throw a dart and choose a particular number because it sounded OK or because it might guarantee a certain number of councillors. Much of the political debate has been driven not by the number of councils but by the number of councillors. There are parties that are afraid of having a serious reduction in their number of councillors in the next election.

In 1999 or 2000 the previous Assembly endorsed the RPA. If this motion succeeds, politically the work of the RPA will be given back to the Assembly. That will mean that it will have taken 10 years for the review to be completed, and many would argue that it will be out of date. I see no reason why Members should defer this matter. Sean Begley and I worked at task force level and on the political panel throughout the process. Based on that personal experience, I do not have confidence that the other parties will get to grips with the fundamental and serious issues that face us. We need to move full speed ahead on the RPA to get a result soon. We need a fairer rates burden and to have equality at the heart of local government, and when people are elected they must not be treated as second-class citizens in the chambers and the systems of local government.

Members need to bring on board the concept of community planning, which would ensure social inclusion. Of the nine options, the seven-council model is the one that guarantees that any minority community will be at least 20%. In any of the three versions of the 15-council model, there would be minority communities of such a small size and scale that they would not be able to return an elected representative to look after their interests. Sinn Féin is not prepared to accept a system of local government in which people cannot get elected or be represented in a council chamber. The option 7C model guarantees that minority communities will be of sufficient size to have people elected and be involved in the governance arrangements of the new councils. That is why option 7C is the only one, out of the nine options on the table —

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

The Member is arguing that under, say, the 15-council model, there would be cases in which one section of the electoral community would not be represented. The 15 proposed council areas are based on the 14 parliamentary constituencies outside Belfast, plus Belfast. Can the Member name any of the 14 constituencies outside Belfast that does not have a mix of nationalist, republican, unionist and other representatives in this House? Would that not be repeated at the council level?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Look at North Down Borough Council, for example. It is a small area; look at the community balance there. The key issue here is that the minority community would be so small that it could not be involved in the governance arrangements, the community planning process or even the elected representation. I ask Members to present the evidence. Sinn Féin has looked at every one of the nine models and asked people to bring forward further options. No options were brought forward.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Is the Member suggesting that council boundaries should be gerrymandered in order to achieve certain electoral outcomes, rather than being divided in terms of good administration?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Certainly not. I hear people talking about Balkanisation — currently there are 26 district councils. How many of those are unionist-dominated, and how many are nationalist-dominated?

Can Members give me an answer?

The Members opposite have not even done their homework. There are more unionist-controlled district councils than nationalist-controlled ones. That should not be the case. If we have 15 councils, perhaps nine of them will be unionist-controlled and six or seven nationalist-controlled. Is that kind of Balkanisation any better? Is it the level of Balkanisation that suits Members here or is it the degree of Balkanisation?

We argue that the option 7C model allows minority communities in all council areas to have sufficient representation to allow them to be involved in the governance arrangements, in respect of both the community planning process and the ability to attain elected representative status.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

No, I am sorry. I cannot give way again.

The system of local government that we advocate is the one that we have argued for from day one. We have never accepted anyone’s proposals. It is great to hear Tommy Gallagher talking about Sinn Féin’s supporting British policies. As someone said a while ago, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. I have not heard him be so anti-British in a long time; he seems only to be so when the number of councillors comes into question, as it will in the next round of discussions on local government. Notwithstanding that, we have argued from day one that our preferred system of local government had to be strong in order to get more power, but that it could not, under any circumstances, get Sinn Féin’s support unless it was underpinned by the most rigorous checks, balances and safeguards for the benefit of citizens and their elected representatives.

Tommy Gallagher talked about the RPA proposals as if they were a done deal. He should ask his colleagues John O’Kane and Dermot Curran how many of the current proposals have already been signed off by his party. The community planning subgroup — [Interruption.]

I sit on the political panel, and I can tell the Member that his colleagues on it have never resisted the proposals or reacted negatively to them. Mr Gallagher talked about governance arrangements, but those are not tied down by any stretch of the imagination — because the unionist parties in particular do not want to concede the principal of power sharing in local government.

We want a system of local government that is strong and effective, which provides value for money for citizens, and which has a fair rates distribution across all the council areas. Councils must run on the principles of power sharing. Equality must be at the heart of governance arrangements, and, above anything else, the people, through the community planning process, must be involved. We have argued, both publicly and privately, with the direct-rule Ministers and on the political panel that equality should be put on a statutory basis. Citizens must be involved in the community planning process so that they can have a real say in how local government delivers their services.

I invite anyone to tell me how those principles can be underpinned by deferring this matter. The parties that want to defer the matter are not prepared to sign up to the kind of power-sharing arrangements that are required to prevent Balkanisation and further polarisation and to ensure that there is full inclusion.

Tommy Gallagher and members of other parties say that Sinn Féin is the only party to support the seven-council model. We may be the only political party in the Assembly to take this stand, but we are pleased to do so, and we are prepared to work through to the last moment to ensure that local government is based on all the principles that I have mentioned. There is a great deal of work yet to do.

INTERREG, the Equality Commission, the Rural Community Network and many other major organisations all say that they would prefer a smaller number of councils, and many of them have opted for the seven-council model in particular. It may not reach the totality that we would prefer — we are still working for that — but it does provide for a more coterminous approach between service providers.

Most reputable organisations, such as the Ulster Farmers’ Union, are in favour of the seven-council model and against having a larger number of councils, because the former provides a more coterminous approach and increases cohesion in local government. The larger the number of councils, the more political parties and some communities can continue to work in isolation.

The smaller the number of councils, the more parties are forced to work together. At present councillors work side by side, yet they never meet, discuss or plan jointly. Under the new arrangements, councillors will have to work together. Those arrangements are counter-Balkanisation and show how we are trying to redress the polarisation that clearly exists. For too long, too many people have been in their comfort zones.

Tommy Gallagher raised the issue of local identity. Who is suggesting that any townland will be abolished under the new council configuration? Of the present 26 district councils, some will go and others will be subsumed into other, as yet unnamed, councils. Who mentioned any townland, village or hamlet that will disappear? I have not heard of one. Will Larne disappear? Some people might want it to, but it will not. [Laughter.] Will Camlough —

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

It is far too cold for you.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Mr Storey, you should talk to your colleagues on the political panel.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Mr Maskey, please speak through the Chair.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

If Mr Storey would care to speak to his colleagues, he would know that in my last contribution to the political panel I highlighted Larne as an example of how people in smaller council areas may feel that they are not part of the new, bigger council. Therefore the bigger council would be obligated to have a structure to make sure —

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Talk to your colleagues, Mr Storey.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. That is not what the Member said. The Member made a direct derogatory comment about Larne, but now he does not have the honesty to say what it was.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Mr Storey, you have said your piece, but it was not a point of order.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Everybody knows that many places have a particular reputation. Many people do not want the political entity of Larne to exist. Certainly, nationalists do not.

As I have already said, and as my colleagues will outline throughout the day, we support a model that we believe affords the fairest system of local government. We have not heard a single proposition from another Member or party that rationally advocates another configuration.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Before we proceed, I remind Members that it is unparliamentary to challenge the honesty of another Member.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I serve on North Down Borough Council, and I am also a vice-president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association.

I want to deal with a couple of the points raised by the Member who spoke previously. He concluded his speech by talking about polarisation and reputation. Many Members will take that with a pinch of salt, at best. There is a high level of hypocrisy in Members from the party opposite talking about polarisation when, for the past 35 years, that party conducted a sectarian murder campaign that, more than anything else, polarised the community.

The Member also referred to the political panel. Representatives of various political parties have worked on the political panel because their aim is to modernise local government. Indeed, most of the panel’s work is number-neutral. The Member mentioned SDLP members John O’Kane and Dermot Curran, both of whom I know. Those members of the political panel, and members from parties other than Sinn Féin, have consistently opposed the option 7C model. Time and time again, they have made their opposition to the option 7C model absolutely clear, and to imply anything else is a gross slur on them. Mr Maskey may be happy to highlight continually Sinn Féin’s isolation, but let us at least put it in context.

He also expressed concern at the number of councillors. Let us nail that issue. Under the proposals there will be 420 councillors. Most parties would be prepared to accept a similar figure. If Sinn Féin is prepared to accept that number, why not have those 420 councillors sitting on 15 councils? The number of councillors is not the issue that concerns Mr Maskey. Furthermore, if he is concerned about slowness of delivery, let Sinn Féin come out from its isolation.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Will the Member take a point of information?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

No, the Member has already had his chance; I do not want to give him any more rope.

Sinn Féin has the opportunity to vary the speed at which the RPA will be implemented. If Sinn Féin is concerned about delays, let it abandon its isolated stance and agree with every other political party in Northern Ireland that there should be 15 councils. There will then be unanimity on the issue and rapid progress can be made. It is in Sinn Féin’s hands.

I am delighted to debate this issue for two reasons. First, the DUP supports the motion and opposes the amendment because it believes this to be an important subject. Secondly, the Government have tried for the past six months to stop this debate taking place. Time and time again in the Business Committee, various parties have pushed this subject onto the agenda, but the Secretary of State’s veto has repeatedly prevented debate.

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

Does the Member accept that the motion was proposed and was vetoed at every meeting of the Business Committee from 15 May to 23 November? Is that not correct?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I cannot confirm that since I am not a member of the Business Committee. However, I believe it to be the case.

The Government have constantly blocked debate on the issue because the decision to support a seven-council model is one of the least justifiable of their many bad recent decisions. It has the least merit, is the most politically driven and has been produced for the wrong reasons. It is particularly appalling that the Government have used the issues of reform of public administration and the number of councils as devices in its wider schemes for political progress in Northern Ireland. At times in the past 35 years, councillors of various parties have been the principal voice of demo-cracy in the country. They have stood at democracy’s front line, providing services to ratepayers and constituents. Many have paid with their lives — the ultimate sacrifice. It is utterly shameful for the Government to use local government as a bargaining chip in the wider political process.

Mention has been made of the arguments advanced for the seven-council model. It is important that we examine each of them to show how spurious they are. The first is coterminosity, which Mr Gallagher has already dealt with to a large extent. The idea was that local government boundaries would be coterminous with those of health and education boards. The RPA proposes five health trusts, the boundaries of which bear no relation whatsoever to the proposed council boundaries. The five education boards will be replaced by a super-board that will oversee the whole of Northern Ireland. When asked about the subject at a recent meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the Chief Constable said that his new district command units could fit in with whatever model was produced; perhaps two councils would be coterminous with one district command unit. It appears that there is no coterminosity anywhere, yet it was said to be one of the main drivers behind the seven-council model.

We are also told that the responses to the consultation showed that the seven-council model is what people want. However, 90% of responses did not deal with the number of councils; rather, they concentrated principally on education issues such as libraries, youth services and issues involving the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools. There is no overwhelming desire in the community for a seven-council model.

Not only do all the parties represented in the Assembly — with the exception of Sinn Féin — believe that the seven-council model is wrong, but smaller parties such as the Green Party also oppose it. At a meeting of NILGA some months before the RPA reported, every Sinn Féin councillor present voted in favour of the 15-council model, although this was before the release of the Sinn Féin statement.

I understand that in the press at the weekend Sinn Féin accused the SDLP of being in an unholy alliance, presumably because the SDLP agreed with all the other parties. I am sure that politically Sinn Féin would love to be in an unholy alliance, but it cannot get other parties to back it.

Sinn Féin also mentioned the rates base, and Tommy Gallagher has covered that point. If various councils are bolted together they will be burdened with different rates, rates bases and debts. Given the Government’s proposed review of rating, there will be regional disparities throughout Northern Ireland. Under the seven-council model there will be no similarity in the rates base.

There will be great savings, we have been told, yet those of us who have been involved with the RPA will know that simply putting in the mechanisms to implement the proposals will cost, conservatively, between £15 million and £25 million — that is purely for the mechanisms to bring forward the modernisation task force and capacity building. The cost of redundancies may be between £25 million and £30 million. However, both those figures will be dwarfed by the money that will have to be paid into pension schemes — perhaps £60 million or £70 million. Where are the great savings that have been promised?

We are told that there will be efficiencies. However, there is little evidence to suggest that that will be the case. Under a 15-council model there could be some economies of scale because one service could be produced for all the constituents in an area. However, under a seven-council model councils will have to cover such wide areas and incorporate such remote regions that pressure will be put on them to provide not simply a headquarters but also a range of regional offices, thus duplicating services again and again.

At a recent meeting with the DUP, the Minister raised the idea of civic councils subordinate to the new super-councils — in effect a form of parish council. The seven councils could create an additional layer of government. Where is the efficiency in that?

As everyone is aware, the real reasons that the Government plumped for seven councils were, first, to pander to Sinn Féin, and secondly to apply political pressure to the other parties, which opposed it. In other words, the Government are telling the political parties that if they do not like the new arrangements, they should get into an Assembly and sort them out. Those reasons are entirely spurious and utterly impure.

As Mr Gallagher said, we are going to Balkanise Northern Ireland, producing three councils that are nationalist-controlled, three that are unionist-controlled, and Belfast, which will be reasonably evenly divided. The justification offered by Sinn Féin is that there will be large minorities in the seven new councils. We will have large, permanently trapped minorities in council areas. Is it preferable to have large groups of disgruntled people rather than small groups? I fail to see the logic in that. It will inevitably lead to poor governance. Either an elite majority will enforce its will on a minority, which the SDLP is concerned about, or there will be so many checks and balances in the system that there cannot be effective government. Either way, it will not lead to good governance for the people of Northern Ireland; it will lead to remoteness and a lack of identity.

No one is suggesting that council areas should be based on townlands, but no one in Northern Ireland, outside Belfast, will identify with the new boundaries. The Boundary Commissioner’s initial report, which listed them as Inner East, East, or whatever, showed the absurdity of these boundaries. No one says, “I’m from east Northern Ireland”, “I’m from the south-east” or “I’m from the south-west”. People will mention the areas that they come from, but there is no community identification whatsoever in the RPA proposals. That will lead to a sense of dislocation, of people feeling isolated from their local council, and to lower turnouts in elections. It will lead to disaffection with the political process and to councils that are less responsive to the people of Northern Ireland.

Reforming the present model to a 15-council one will provide people with a system that they will feel is directly accountable to them because local councillors will still represent their area. People will see that the needs of their area are met rather than being subsumed into vast council areas that stretch across Northern Ireland.

The 15-council model will produce economies of scale because no one is arguing for the retention of the 26-council model. All parties, with the exception of Sinn Féin, have said that the 15-council model is more suitable for making economies of scale.

With respect to my colleagues from various parties in Belfast, rates in Belfast — for a range of reasons that I accept — have tended to be higher than in other parts of Northern Ireland. That is partly because Belfast is a capital city. However, the evidence suggests that moving to an economy of scale of 250,000 people does not produce any additional economies of scale beyond what would be achieved with, perhaps, 100,000 people.

Indeed, it could be argued that, due to the vast scale of Belfast — which would be replicated in other councils under the option 7C model — there is not the opportunity for the high level of budget scrutiny that many smaller councils achieve. Belfast’s status as a capital city is not the main reason for its higher rates, but it is a factor. There is no evidence to suggest that very large councils produce lower rates; in fact, the opposite is the case.

A 15-council model would provide local govern-ment that is close and accountable to the people, and which is local in the true sense of the word. The option 7C model will be bad for accountability and for the local identity of the people of Northern Ireland. All Members are in favour of greater efficiencies and greater modernisation in local councils so that they will be able to provide a better service for the people of Northern Ireland. However, a seven-council model will not provide that.

The option 7C model will be weak, unrepresentative and unaccountable. That is why the Assembly should reject it. A clear message should be sent to the Govern-ment: listen to the people of Northern Ireland and to their directly elected representatives who believe that the option 7C model will be bad, and that a 15-council model would be much better for their future.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP 11:15 am, 5th December 2006

All parties — including Sinn Féin — should support the motion because it is the right thing to do. It should also be supported for another reason. The Ulster Unionist Party tabled a motion on an earlier no-day-named list along the same lines as the SDLP motion. However, that is by the by.

The option 7C model proposed for Northern Ireland is plainly and simply wrong. It is so wrong that it must be halted in its tracks this very day. The motion proposes that the Assembly call on the Secretary of State to “shelve” plans for seven councils and to allow a future Assembly to take the process forward.

In response to the RPA further consultation exercise, my party proposed a 15-council model, and its reasons for so doing were well publicised at the time. In any new consideration of the number of councils required to deliver local services — and there must be one — the Ulster Unionist Party will forcefully make the case for 15 councils.

We were told that support for the option 7C model had been identified through reading all the reports produced by the experts and panel members. However, it was difficult to identify precisely who supported that model. Mr Maskey mentioned a group of people today who, he states, supported the option 7C model. Time has moved on since those people supported that model, and if they were asked whether they still supported it, I think that, with reality having set in, much of that support would have gone.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

In the past couple of weeks, INTERREG III has stated that the option 7C model would optimise the money available — through European funds, for example — to deal with the entire border corridor area. That was said only two or three weeks ago — not years ago.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

I am sure that my colleague will admit that much of the INTERREG money is fed through the cross-border groups rather than directly through the councils.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP

Alex Maskey has made my case for me: he could mention only one group that may still be holding on to the seven-council principle. Sinn Féin is the only party in the House that lends its support to that model, which caused more than a little disquiet in that party. My knowledge of how some Sinn Féin supporters across the Province think confirms what we have heard elsewhere: there is a growing number of party members in Sinn Féin who are not in line with Alex Maskey. That is yet to come out.

One could say that the voice of politicians across Northern Ireland has been ignored, and not for the first time. More importantly, the voice of those who elected them is being ignored. Of course, since the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner published his provisional recommendations, which regrouped 26 councils into seven, any support that there was for the seven-council model has been evaporating. Members need not take my word for it. If they talk to people in Antrim, Lisburn, Carrick and the surrounding region, they will not find much support for this new place — and “place” is all that I can call it at present — of Inner East Local Government District. At this festive season, one starts to think of Bethlehem and places such as that. [Interruption.]Someone suggested that the proposed new council looks like a big muffler around Belfast. I would not like the area that I represent to be called such.

When the commissioner published his provisional recommendations, he admitted, openly and freely, that he had consulted academics and local historians about possible names for the new configuration. They could not come up with any. Therefore we are left with North, South, East, West, Inner this and Outer that. The idea is absolutely crazy. Some of us advised the RPA team that it was ignoring totally the question of local identity. The UUP did, and I know that other parties did as well.

I had the good fortune to attend, as a Deputy Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the opening of the National Assembly for Wales. When I was there, Paul Murphy spoke to me privately. I shall not share what he said about the seven-council model; indeed, I would not be able to use the exact words, so I shall not repeat them. However, in an interview with ‘Fortnight’ magazine in February he said:

“I made it clear that I wasn’t happy with a small number of local authorities. I would have personally preferred something around the fourteen or fifteen mark…”.

And this is the important part of what he said:

“I am a bit troubled that they [the seven councils] are too big and whether in fact you’ll see an east and west of the Bann divide which will increasingly become more polarised.”

Those words are worth thinking about; in fact, they are worth repeating. Mr Murphy said that the seven councils would be too big and he wondered about the east-west divide and polarisation. The UUP agrees with that opinion.

That brings me back to the motion:

“this Assembly expresses serious concern about the potential of a seven council model to … underpin sectarianism and community division;”

Paul Murphy agrees with the political parties in Northern Ireland.

Many of us, in our political careers, have invested heavily in bringing together communities. I can speak only for myself, but I am satisfied that I have done my best.

That was not always the easy option, and it has cost some of us dearly. Let us not destroy what we have achieved, because success was achieved, as seen in our communities.

A seven-council model is a nonsense. It is a recipe for division, polarisation and the total destruction of communities. It is, most certainly, a sectarian carve-up, and the Ulster Unionist Party warned against it. The proposals amount to repartition and will destroy decades of cross-community work and partnerships at a stroke. Let me make this clear to the Government: they are ignoring the democratically expressed will of the people of Northern Ireland. A seven-council model will not constitute the right approach. Sinn Féin may say that it does, but three quarters of the voting population of Northern Ireland say that it does not.

My party contends that the motion should receive support, and I hope that it does. It will send a loud and clear message that the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland believe that their communities deserve better than second best. The Ulster Unionist Party supports the goal of reform through the review of public administration but will not back a Government proposal that is so contaminated and falls so far short of its intended aims.

It is interesting to look back to the beginning of the process. When Ian Pearson launched the consultation process, he said tellingly:

“We must ensure that the new arrangements are fair and equitable, and that they command confidence among the political parties and their constituents.”

Have the Government delivered on this goal? No, they have not.

In responding to the Assembly debate on draft Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14) earlier this year, the Secretary of State said:

“I will naturally want to reflect carefully on the Assembly debate.”

He went on to say that he would take account of the views expressed. I invite the Secretary of State to listen and reflect on what is being said in the Chamber today. Would Peter Hain have introduced such a proposal in Wales if all but one of the political parties there were against it? I very much doubt it.

The Secretary of State has said that the people of Northern Ireland expect MLAs to do the jobs that they were elected to do. How many times have we heard that from the Secretary of State? Well, today we are doing just that. We are making it clear that the current Government proposals to create seven super-councils do not command widespread support, particularly among politicians here.

I support the motion.

Photo of Séan Neeson Séan Neeson Alliance 11:30 am, 5th December 2006

I declare an interest in that I have been a member of Carrickfergus Borough Council since 1977 and have a great deal of experience of local government. We all agree that 26 district councils are too many for Northern Ireland. There is a need for radical reform to create efficient and effective councils that are responsive to the local needs of the people of Northern Ireland.

The consultation on the new boundaries was basically a myth. I remember the number of meetings that my party had with Lord Rooker, and I am sure that other parties also met him. That particular individual showed great arrogance to the elected people of Northern Ireland, and I can assure Members that very few tears were shed on his departure.

To all intents and purposes, the proposed seven councils constitute a sectarian carve-up, with three nationalist councils to the west and three unionist councils to the east. However, I am pleased that the Alliance Party will continue to hold the balance of power in Belfast to ensure that power sharing continues in that council.

To all intents and purposes —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Obviously, Mr Neeson is a member of the political panel and has heard all the reports from the various subgroups, including the one on governance. Does he not agree that, although the final details of the power-sharing arrangements have not yet been agreed, his party has supported a plethora of proposals on such matters as proportionality, weighted majorities, call-in, petitions of concern, a code of conduct, internal standards committees, the structure of council committee systems, and decision-making? All of those measures have been instituted.

Mr Neeson and I had an engagement in a hotel in Templepatrick a while ago at which I reminded him that Sinn Féin would not be — [Interruption.]

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Templepatrick has been a busy hub this last while.

Mr Neeson will recall — [Interruption.]

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

It is a serious point. Mr Neeson will recall that, during that meeting of the political panel, I reminded him that Sinn Féin would not be countenancing a governance arrangement that allows any party to usurp the will of the vast majority of the people and their elected representatives. Governance arrangements have been set down.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Mr Maskey, interventions must always be brief.

Photo of Séan Neeson Séan Neeson Alliance

The only thing to emerge from what Alex Maskey has said is that Templepatrick seems to have become the centre of the universe.

To all intents and purposes, and apart from being a sectarian carve-up, this is in many ways a re-partition of Northern Ireland. I believe that that is why Sinn Féin has supported it — with the exception of Francie Molloy, who is conspicuous by his absence today.

We know that there is to be a radical shake-up of the health and education boards. One of the main objectives that the Government have been hoping to achieve is coterminosity between the various boards and trusts. That will not happen under the seven council areas that are proposed. On a personal basis, I also have serious reservations about NILGA’s proposal for 15 district councils. Serious consideration should be given to the 11-council model. That is why it is important that this Assembly be given the opportunity to look at the original proposals.

As Alex Maskey has already pointed out, I have been a member of the political panel — as has Sam Gardiner of the Ulster Unionist Party. A great deal of work has already gone into the proposals that have been made. Some very worthwhile work has been carried out, particularly by the nine task forces. However, there is still a great deal of work to be done. The Assembly should be given the opportunity to scrutinise the changes and proposals that are coming forward, particularly in relation to council powers over public transport and the whole question of responsibility for local roads and planning.

I am pleased to say that in many ways Lord Rooker’s successor, David Cairns, is much more responsive to the views of Northern Ireland politicians than Lord Rooker was. In the interim before the restoration of devolution there are opportunities to bring about various changes to the proposals. The restoration of devolution is the real challenge facing, in particular, the DUP and Sinn Féin. Yesterday, both parties gave us history lessons.

As a former history teacher, I can tell those parties that, if no progress is made by 26 March next year, history will judge them very poorly indeed.

The issue of what will happen to current council staff must also be addressed. Morale among council staff is very low; they do not know what the future holds, which is why there is a need to consider their needs and develop certainty for them.

I believe that the Chief Constable is moving very prematurely in restructuring local policing services. Furthermore, it calls into question the future role of district policing partnerships (DPPs) under that restructuring. That issue also requires serious consideration.

Dick Mackenzie recently published his proposals for the new council boundaries, and I understand the difficulties he encountered in trying to find names for the proposed seven councils. Under the proposals, my own council will become part of Inner East Local Government District, which will comprise Carrickfergus, Antrim, Newtownabbey and Lisburn —

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

And Templepatrick.

Photo of Séan Neeson Séan Neeson Alliance

And Templepatrick, of course. [Laughter.]

In relation to the question of association, with regard to that particular proposed council, I ask Members what the people of Carrickfergus have in common with, for example, the people of Dromara — very little indeed. The current proposals do not respect local interests at all.

On the issue of the transfer of powers to local govern-ment, may I make an appeal about the supporting people programme? The proposal is to transfer responsibilities for that programme from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to local councils. Over the years, the Housing Executive has been a major success story as regards the development of housing in Northern Ireland. Responsibilities for the supporting people programme should remain with the Housing Executive. Members of the Housing Executive and the Northern Ireland Housing Council recently outlined their arguments to my local council. That responsibility should remain where it is at the present time.

The Government continually talk about a shared future, and we are told that a shared future is very much at the forefront of the current proposals. However, the truth of the matter is that, as far as the Government are concerned, a shared future is simply talk, and cheap talk at that.

There has also been talk, as Alex Maskey knows, about the possibility of councillor designations in the new councils — something to which my party is totally opposed. We realise that that is an entire sham, as demonstrated on a number of occasions in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

As a member of the Subgroup on the Economic Challenges Facing Northern Ireland, I noticed that one issue that came up time and time again was the inefficiencies of Government Departments in Northern Ireland. Such inefficiencies are the result of the artificial creation of 10 Departments. We know why 10 Departments were created — to create jobs for the boys and girls in the parties that formed the Executive. If we are to achieve joined-up government, there must be a reform of central government.

If Northern Ireland is to really move forward, the current proposals for the new councils should be binned immediately.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

That concludes the first round of Members to speak. The time limit for Members yet to speak in the debate will be 10 minutes. There is a long list of Members who wish to speak, so I remind Members that I shall be keeping them to their allotted time.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence) 11:45 am, 5th December 2006

I am delighted to start the second round of speeches, Madam Speaker. I hope that we go the full 15 rounds, although it remains to be seen who will be left standing at the end.

I wish to declare that I am a member of a local authority. I am a member of the city council in Londonderry.

Several Members have referred to the importance and seriousness of the RPA, and it is appropriate, therefore, that we are discussing the matter in the Assembly today. Very little disagreement remains on the need for reform of our public administration. It was blatantly obvious that, with three MEPs, 18 MPs, 108 MLAs, 582 councillors, and however many trusts and boards for a population of 1·7 million, we were the most over-governed part of the United Kingdom. Therefore it is well past time that we had reform. The matter for discussion, however, is not reform itself but the nature of that reform.

I agree with those Members who spoke about the importance of the cost-effectiveness of any reform of public administration, particularly for those councils that appear to be the focus of both the motion and the amendment.

I draw Members’ attention to the two areas with which I am most familiar. How can it be cost-effective to have a council in the west/north-west of Northern Ireland that stretches from Castlederg in the south-west to Magilligan on the north coast? I cannot think of a more difficult task than delivering cohesive local services that will attempt to bring together people with a common interest in order to get them to work for the greater good of all the people of that area, given the distance of 60 miles and the different terrain and demographics between those who live at either end of that range, not to mention those who live in the middle.

The north-east, which stretches for about 60 miles from Coleraine on the north coast to the shores of Belfast Lough, also contains huge diversity. It is difficult to imagine how a local council can serve communities in that diverse area cost-effectively. That will be the legacy of the seven-council model. A 15-council model — or thereabouts — would reduce an area of that size, enabling it to deliver local services much more effectively and more cost-effectively. For that reason, all the political parties, with the exception of Sinn Féin/IRA, prefer the 15-council model.

I also wish to deal with the issue of political representation. My colleagues and others who have served on the political panel have mentioned, quite rightly, the importance of governance, however many councils there are to be in Northern Ireland. Various political representatives have raised the issue of the feelings, concerns, fears and apprehensions that a minority would have in each of the council areas, and their views must be taken into account. However, those whom I have heard outline such concerns are usually people who trot out criticism of unionist-controlled councils for their treatment of their nationalist minority. We have heard such criticism today.

Rather than listen to a politician’s political views or fears, we should look at practical examples of what has actually happened in places such as south Armagh, Strabane and on the west bank of Londonderry. When Sinn Féin — or, unfortunately, the SDLP in some cases — has espoused a political view, not only have some unionists felt that they are not being treated well, they have moved out of the area en masse. We must face that reality.

It is not simply a case of people who come from the 15% minority community in council areas such as Castlereagh, Larne or Lisburn not being elected deputy mayor or chairman of a technical services committee. Unionists who live in nationalist areas fear that a jackboot will be put to their necks and that they will have to leave. Over the years, that fear has been borne out. We must try to ensure that people from a minority community can live in any future council areas, whether they are set up under the 15-council model — that is my preference — or the seven-council model, even if those councils are governed by councillors whose political outlook is fundamentally different from theirs. Unfortunately, that has not been the case in the past.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Member concur that the reason that many people moved out of areas across the North — not only out of unionist-controlled or Protestant areas — was due to the conflict and sectarian violence of the past 30 years?

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

The short answer is yes; that is the case. However, why is it that the unionist community in the three council areas that I mentioned as examples is the prime target in the firing line? I am not aware of large numbers of nationalists moving out of Craigavon because of paramilitary activity or the activities of Craigavon Borough Council. However, I can point to numerous instances of tens of thousands of unionists moving out as a result of paramilitary activity —

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Madam Speaker, if the Member wants me to —

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I accede to, and fully accept, the fact that paramilitary violence was the primary cause of division and population movement. However, politicians, by their actions, cannot wash their hands of those population movements and simply say that that was a terrible situation. In various areas, populations have moved because of the activities of the Provisional IRA and others. People who take political decisions that impact on those communities must realise that there are consequences to those decisions.

Over the past few years, I assumed that we were trying to move on from the days of population movements. However, the seven-council model does not offer that prospect. The 15-council model — or a similar model — with sufficient safeguards and governance procedures, would ensure that people in certain council areas did not feel that their culture, outlook and political aspirations were being ridden roughshod over. That has happened to both communities. All too often I hear nationalists and republicans referring to what happened in unionist areas, but we all know what happened in republican areas. In Dungiven, in my constituency, parasites drove out hundreds of members of my community. That has happened across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Those facts and figures cannot be denied. When I hit the bullseye, some people become annoyed and angry.

That is just too bad: if they cannot take the heat, they should not be in the kitchen.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, I refute the myth that Sinn Féin is the only group that supports the seven-council model; many diverse groups also agree that that model is the best. Those groups include: the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA); the Institute of Directors; the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB); the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU); the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO); the Confederation of British Industry (CBI); and Friends of the Earth (FOE). [Interruption.]

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Those on the opposite Benches, particularly Gregory Campbell, gave many spurious reasons for why people have moved out of their homes. Plenty of people have been bombed out of their homes in places such as Ahoghill. We have argued that legislation should be put in place and financial sanctions imposed to deal with those councils that do not try to eradicate bigotry in their areas. We should consider creating good-relations policies.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Again, in the interests of accuracy, Ballymena Borough Council had nothing whatsoever to do with any of those activities in the village of Ahoghill.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

That is not a point of order, Mr Storey.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Thank you, Madam Speaker. Yes — [Interruption.]

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

It is more to the shame of that Member’s party that it did nothing about it.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Yes; it is more important that the Member’s party did nothing about it.

However, in every engagement —

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

No, I will not. I do not have much time.

In every engagement, Sinn Féin has argued that the number of councils is not the key issue. We want strong and effective local government and an end to the quango culture. We want increased value for money in order to bring about democratic accountability for local govern-ment. Crucially, we want all of that underpinned by rigorous checks, balances and safeguards. One reason that local government is in its current position, and has been for three decades, is because of unionist councillors’ systematic practices of discrimination. That behaviour continues.

I shall focus my remarks mainly on EU issues, particularly those that are connected to funding and rural matters. For 15 years, the European Union has had a LEADER programme that aims to bring local people together to create an agreed strategy for their area, using EU money, and to intervene to create jobs and assist rural communities. That has been successful across Europe, but it has been particularly successful in Ireland. The current LEADER+ programme in the North deals with 13 groups, it has a budget of £22 million for 2001-08, and it will create in excess of 1,000 jobs in rural communities and will safeguard many more. For example, compared to the EU programmes with budgets that are two or three times that amount that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) is delivering, LEADER+ will prove to be extremely good value for money.

To date, additional resources that are above current levels of subvention that come into the Six Counties and the border corridor have not come from the British Government, or, indeed, from the old National Develop-ment Plan (NDP) of the Dublin Government. However, through Peace III money, which totals €266 million, and the new territorial co-operation programmes, the EU will invest a combined total of €532 million between 2007 and 2013 in the COMET (Councils of the Metropolitan Region) and CORE partnerships and the border corridor. The border corridor is the most deprived area on the island of Ireland, and, in the past, EU funds have provided a major source of employment, and they will continue to provide that and other services.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am sure that we are all fascinated by the investment in the border corridor and the EU programmes. However, is any of that relevant to the motion, to which the Member should surely be speaking?

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Order. That was not a point of order. I am sure that Ms Gildernew will review the relevance of her speech.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

Will the Member give way to a genuine question?

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

No, I will not.

As I have pointed out, in a recent submission to the Special European Union Programmes Body (SEUPB) on the new territorial co-operation fund, INTERREG IIIA partnerships stated:

“The RPA will have a number of implications, which are substantially favourable to the prospects of effective cross border territorial co-operation. These include a redefinition of council boundaries into the proposed 7 super councils. While some adjustments of boundaries will be needed, the proposed map of new councils broadly fits the current INTERREG IIIA partnerships … This should greatly facilitate the partnerships taking a strategic approach.”

Therefore, the seven-council model is the optimum configuration if a coterminous approach through the strategic use of those additional resources in the border corridor is to be facilitated.

Indeed, the seven-council governance model — larger councils working in concert with community planning structures — is similar, in terms of scale, process and structures, to the county council and county develop-ment board model in the Twenty-Six Counties.

In relation to potential for strategic parity between councils in the border corridor area, the INTERREG IIIA partnership report also concluded that:

“The impact of the RPA, [the 7 super councils], is to bring the scale and the processes of local government much more into line between Northern Ireland and the Border Region of Ireland”

To promote balanced regional development in the border corridor area for the mutual benefit of all the communities that live there, the seven-council model provides a geographical area and institutional space to make best strategic use of EU development moneys.

It should also be noted that INTERREG IIIA partnerships are made up of social partners, staff and political representatives from Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the DUP, the UUP and the SDLP.

It is interesting to hear what the UFU has to say about the review of public administration. It has endorsed the approach of making high-quality services accessible to all by significantly streamlining the present administrative structures and redirecting the resultant savings to improve frontline services in the North of Ireland.

The UFU states:

“It is absolutely imperative that a satisfactory balance is achieved between administrative rationalisation and local representation, consultation, responsiveness and accountability.”

Specifically, the union has supported plans to move to a seven-council structure but says that rural representation must be protected.

However, in the midst of all this, the other political parties are having a field day; they are refusing to engage and are actively working to wreck any prospect of agreement on the way forward.

If the Member who tabled today’s motion took a look at the pathetic delivery of assistance to rural communities, particularly building sustainable prosperity (BSP) moneys and the Peace II programme, in which his former colleague, Bríd Rodgers, presided over a delivery mechanism that successfully delayed the beginning of many parts of the rural development programme for more than two years and kept the greater part of delivery in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP 12:00 pm, 5th December 2006

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I trust that the Member will also mention the decision of Minister Cairns that the rural Protestant community needed extra money.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

That was not a point of order. At the beginning of this afternoon’s sitting, I will again read out what I have said before about points of order. Quote the relevant Standing Order, Mr Hussey, and you may be allowed to make a point of order.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Of a budget of more than £80 million, only £22 million went to the LEADER programme, but that will create more than 1,600 jobs. Will the Member be confident that the other £58 million — almost two thirds of the budget — will create anywhere near the equivalent, which would be about 4,500 jobs? I do not think so.

The majority of the jobs created by the Member’s party in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development were jobs for the boys. The SDLP is concerned about its own political skin. It is not con-cerned about local people being able to make decisions about local communities. It wants to keep control and join together with unionism, as it does throughout councils in the North, to maintain the status quo.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

No, Tommy, I do not have time.

The SDLP is putting forward false arguments that are more about being anti-Sinn Féin than being pro-rural communities. When the SDLP had the opport-unity to support rural communities, it failed. It allowed the Civil Service to dictate the terms, and rural communities are now suffering as a result.

Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In relation to support for rural communities and —

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

That is not a point of order, Mr Gallagher.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

That is not a point of order. I am on my feet. I will take this opportunity to read out what I have already read out at least twice before. I remind Members that a point of order is not an opportunity for debate. It would assist the House if Members referred to the relevant Standing Order when they raise a point of order. I shall not accept spurious points of order, attractive though they may be to Members.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

Under Standing Order 2A —

[Interruption.]

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Do you wish to make point of order, Mr Hussey?

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

Yesterday, it seemed that certain Standing Orders on the papers that we were given were not relevant. Will the Speaker determine which Standing Orders are relevant?

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Mr Hussey, yesterday you referred to Standing Order 20, and I said that it was not relevant to the business of the day. That is correct.

The point that I am making about points of order is correct every day: Members must relate their point to the relevant Standing Order. I will then comment on it. It appears to me that most of the points of order are raised in order to add to the debate and to make spurious points. Attractive though that may be for Members, it is not in order.

I apologise, Ms Gildernew. Extra time will be allowed.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

As I was saying, when the SDLP had the opportunity to support rural communities, it failed. It did such a poor job that it completely failed to put in any measure of rural proofing, and that has allowed draconian anti-farmer and anti-rural policies, such as Planning Policy Statement 14, to be introduced. Savings made through the reduction of governance here must be recycled into front-line services, and rural dwellers must be properly represented. Farmers and farming families are at the heart of rural communities. The option 7C model is the best way to enhance and protect them. I urge Members to support the amendment. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Photo of Robert Coulter Robert Coulter UUP

I am glad of the opport-unity to speak on this issue, because one hears many questions about it in the community. It is interesting to note that when the public are questioned, more than 70% of their concerns are about health. That is one of the major issues that I have come up against. However, although the debate so far has been wide-ranging, the health aspect of the RPA has largely been left to one side.

Public administration reform is not simply about the efficiency or effectiveness of delivery. Efficiency and effectiveness are important in themselves, but they are not the core activity of the public services. The clue lies in the word “service”: service is the core activity. Health and social services are arguably the most sensitive activities in which Government engage. That is why the Ulster Unionist Party has always emphasised that patients are at the heart of the Health Service. We must put the patient first.

There are aspects of the RPA package as regards health and social services with which I have no problems. For example, the creation of a single strategic health and social services authority to replace the four health boards and oversee the implementation of policy across Northern Ireland is welcome. The reduction of duplication has been consistently advocated by the UUP and reflects the role of strategic health authorities in Great Britain. However, that successful move has been marred and compromised by a failure to ensure that democratically elected representatives have a place on the strategic health and social services authority. That is unquestionably a serious flaw in the new arrangements.

That raises an important issue that is characteristic of much of the RPA process and its outcome: the system is driven and controlled by bureaucratic considerations, without sufficient regard for democratic input. That is not altogether surprising, given the Civil Service’s direct-rule culture. For years, it has operated in a direct-rule vacuum, insulated from the rough winds of democratic accountability and, in particular, public disapproval.

However, we cannot fault efforts by the Civil Service to improve service delivery. That is one of the better aspects of the Civil Service’s efforts to improve itself in recent years. I want to put on record my strong support for the current leadership of the Civil Service in its efforts to improve service delivery.

However, we can find fault with the insufficient regard for democratic input. I am sure that the Civil Service will argue that much consultation has taken place. However, consultation is not the same as locally elected representatives making decisions. It runs like a vein through the whole RPA process. That will be one of the biggest issues that the Assembly will have to sort out if it is properly restored.

We will have to effect a major change of culture and mindset in the Civil Service in order to clear away the cobwebs of unaccountable direct rule.

Another disturbing aspect of the RPA is its drift away from the principle of coterminosity, which was mentioned several times this morning. That drift is one outcome of the lack of regard for democratic input, to which I have already referred. The proposed five new integrated trusts — the Western Area Trust, the Northern Area Trust, the Southern Area Trust, the Belfast Area Trust and the South Eastern Area Trust — are a step away from the principle of coterminosity. As will be the case with the local commissioning groups, the boundaries of local health units should coincide with those of local government. If the planners of the RPA had sufficient regard for democracy, they would see that weakness in their proposals. However, reducing the number of the current 18 trusts is a welcome step.

The failure to create a single Northern Ireland hospitals’ authority is one of many glaring missed opportunities in the RPA model. It has been historically proven that hospitals have haemorrhaged and drained a great deal of primary and community care funding. The separation of primary and community care from acute services would have created a proper basis for health funding and ensured that funds for primary and community care were not drained to support acute care. That is important, given that medical focus is shifting towards preventative medicine. However, it is difficult to see how preventative medicine can succeed if it must compete with acute services for funding — acute services inevitably win. One weakness of the old process is being replicated in the new system.

The seven local commissioning groups that deal with primary care may restore some of the balance that will be lost in the RPA health proposals. By recognising the centrality of primary care and the need for primary-care-led commissioning, there is at least an effort to underline its importance. If that is to be more than lip-service, however, it is vital that the local commissioning groups are properly resourced and that funding for that care is ring-fenced.

The lack of elected representatives on the new Patient and Client Council, which will replace the Health and Social Services Councils, is another incidence of the democratic deficit that is implicit in these proposals. That is a serious flaw, as it is only through elected representatives that genuine accountability and representation can be achieved. The seven-council model reduces the options that are available for coterminosity in health service delivery, and it creates inflexibility in the delivery of services. Critical mass and efficiency considerations may be important, but not at the expense of democratic input. Democracy must always hold the higher ground in any new arrangements. The twin pillars of democratic account-ability and improved service delivery will keep the RPA house standing. At present, the democratic-input pillar is largely missing, and this Assembly must address that deficit. The sooner locally elected representatives in the Chamber make decisions, the better for everyone. I support the motion.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

I declare an interest as a member of Down District Council and as a member of NILGA. Before speaking to the motion, I shall address some misrepresentations.

Contrary to assertions that were made by the Sinn Féin representative for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew, the former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development addressed the needs of the rural community.

She addressed the needs of those involved with foot-and-mouth disease, introduced rural proofing and also overruled civil servants by introducing milk quotas for small producers. The SDLP led the charge against PPS 14, although I am led to believe that some Members from Sinn Féin were initially in favour of it. The SDLP led the charge in the Chamber when Sinn Féin was absent.

The proposals for the seven councils under the arrangements for the review of public administration undermine the principle of local identity and a sense of place and dismantle the political homogeneity that has characterised many district councils throughout Northern Ireland for many years. They will sever natural power-sharing arrangements that have worked well in Down, Derry and Newry and Mourne councils, contrary to some of the assertions made by the DUP in the past, because it has benefited from those power-sharing arrangements in Down District Council.

The seven-council model has not engendered cross-community support, and it will simply heighten the east-west divide, cause greater division

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, I have only 10 minutes.

It will cause greater division, polarisation and sectarianism. The seven-council model will place minorities in certain areas at greater disadvantage and place current and future proposals for investment and infrastructure in jeopardy. Unionists and nationalists will experience similar problems with the proposed configuration of seven councils. Take, for example, the proposed East Local Government District Council — a name that makes people’s blood run cold — of which Down District Council will be a part. I have a point of information for the DUP: Down District Council has had power-sharing arrangements on an incremental basis since 1973, and my colleagues ensured that the DUP was represented on statutory committees over many years when its colleagues in the UUP would not afford it that opportunity.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, I have only 10 minutes, and I wish to continue.

The proposed East Local Government District Council will be overwhelmingly unionist in its representation. Coming from the south-east, where partnership, equality and working together have been common coinage since 1973, I fear that the new political demography will simply marginalise nationalists and could ensure that partnership and equality are consigned to the past, irrespective of the safeguards in legislation. Is that what Sinn Féin wants and supports? Does it want the existing arrangements eradicated in favour of a model that puts the future of Down District Council, which has worked well as a partnership, in jeopardy? Is that what its sense of a new political dispensation really means?

Furthermore, some of the councils that will form part of the suggested East Local Government District Council have already had the audacity to object to the auditor about Down District Council’s plans for a new administration centre in Downpatrick. Why is there interference? Down District Council has not interfered with their business agenda. Undoubtedly those councils want to ensure, at this stage, that the suggested East Local Government District Council headquarters will be in north Down, Newtownards or Castlereagh, thereby immediately colouring the future investment prospects for that area. Such developments cast unhappy shadows over future political arrangements for the people that the SDLP represents.

The seven-council model puts politics, political arrangements and the future of partnership arrange-ments on the back burner. With the Balkanisation of Northern Ireland — a term that was used by the Sinn Féin Member for Mid Ulster Francie Molloy, who seems out of step with his own party but in agreement with the broader body politic — the principles won by the civil rights movement for respect for political difference, equality and justice for all have been severed. Is that what Sinn Féin supports and campaigns for? Has it rejected people? It has simply pandered to the British and negotiated for itself in order to gain political control of certain parts of Northern Ireland. Is that part of the side deal — [Interruption.]

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

Is that part of the side deal for those on the run? That cropped up last November and December — the same time as the new arrangements for local government. I wonder why.

We have been told that the new arrangements under the review of public administration will create savings. What savings? Mr Weir has already referred to savings. The SDLP doubts that any savings will be made, because they have not been quantified. Consider, for example, the proposals for the management of roads and the delivery of new road infrastructure in Northern Ireland: the unitary Roads Service is to demolished and replaced with nine roads authorities — for a place the size of Northern Ireland.

Seven of the nine roads authorities will be formed from the new councils, with different budgets, priorities and resources, and different abilities to undertake different projects. There will also be a motorway and trunk roads authority and a body to deal with standards and performance. Will different standards for roads maintenance apply in the same council area? Could the maintenance standards for motorways be different from those for country B-roads? What significant research has been carried out in that area?

Returning to the issue of the rates base, will some councils expend higher levels of funding than others? Will councils and the motorway and trunk roads authority give similar priorities to roads? How will proposals for the future management of roads deliver balanced regional development, equality and justice for Northern Ireland, yet simultaneously provide an upgraded roads infrastructure that will contribute to economic growth? Those are some of the issues that the economic challenges subgroup discussed.

The recent publication by the Local Government Boundary Commissioner simply copper-fastens the proposals for the option 7C model, because he was circumscribed by the legislation to deal only with those issues. That publication demonstrates no cognisance of local identities. Some Sinn Féin representatives applauded him and the process that will eradicate their own roles. Electoral wards have been severed, natural ties of communication have been torn asunder and the new configuration bears no relationship to transportation or education ties or where people avail themselves of services or go shopping.

The Boundary Commissioner’s driving force appears to be to undertake a mathematical exercise for each electoral ward. A cursory study of the figures demonstrates a difference in eligibility figures for electoral wards between the east and west of Northern Ireland. For example, the eligibility figures may be greater in the west than in the east or vice versa. The Boundary Commissioner’s proposals for electoral wards clearly demonstrate a need to meet the requirements of larger councils rather than an understanding or empathy for communities and their requirements.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

No. I have less than two minutes left.

In order for real political progress to happen, for people to continue working together and for respect for difference to be honoured, the option 7C model must be removed from the agenda.

The Programme for Government Committee — on which members from the four main parties sit — must make more realistic proposals that reflect political homogeneity, the necessity for partnership, natural geographical patterns, community ties, transportation networks and economic growth. I wonder why Sinn Féin idolises the option 7C model; perhaps it has more to do with deals that that party has done in Downing Street.

[Interruption.]

The proposed model will not enhance political progress. It could act as an encumbrance to future political developments and hamper the people whom we all seek to represent. Remember: politics is about people and their requirements and demands. The proposed model must be withdrawn.

[Interruption.]

By snapping at me from the sidelines, Sinn Féin Members are simply thinking of themselves, their council seats and their level of political representation. That is their main agenda in today’s debate.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Order. Members will know that the Business Committee has arranged to meet at lunch time. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 12.24 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Wells] in the Chair) —

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP 2:00 am, 5th December 2006

Before the debate resumes, I wish to remind the House of the requirement of Standing Order 29, which relates to the need for Members, before taking part in any debate or proceeding of the Assembly, to declare any interest, financial or otherwise, that may be relevant to that debate.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In Standing Order 34(d)(ii), there is terminology that might confuse the House; it refers to the “Army Council”. I ask the Speaker’s Office to investigate and report back to the Chamber.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I will refer that to the Speaker, and no doubt she will give a ruling at a later date.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I think that that comment from Mr Hussey would be better referred to the members of the party opposite; they might be able to give more clarity than the Speaker’s Office.

I wish to declare an interest as a Member of Ballymoney Borough Council, the second smallest of the 26 district councils. We heard a lot this morning about identity, and in the very rural council area that I come from it is vital that the issue of identity is not lost; it is important. I have often said that, and I say it again. Take for example Lisnagunogue — and if anyone wants to try and spell that, they will do a better job than me — in my constituency of North Antrim. How relevant will a new super-council be to that townland and hamlet? That is an issue that we cannot easily dismiss.

The current Government plan to reduce the number of local councils from 26 to just seven would not only weaken local government, but also make it more remote and unrepresentative of the needs of local communities. It has another serious potential problem in that it could become the greatest organisational blunder of the twenty-first century.

The DUP has consistently called for improvements that would streamline the decision-making process and reduce bureaucracy, but I fear that the current proposals regarding local government will be detrimental rather than advantageous. The DUP has long pressed for real and serious savings in public administration. While others wasted their time in trying to house-train Sinn Féin/IRA in 2003, the DUP set about producing real and serious proposals to address financial waste and over-governance. We said that the 11 Government Departments created under the Belfast Agreement were too many; that was the Belfast Agreement’s Millennium Dome and the pro-agreement parties’ version of jobs for the boys.

The DUP pushed for real and meaningful savings. At last the Secretary of State has decided — and it is not often that we give him credit for anything he says or does — that the 11 Departments should be considered and looked at, and I hope that they will be reformed in a way that is more reflective of the needs of any future Assembly.

Dealing with Northern Ireland’s numerous unaccount-able quangos is key to the success of the reorganisation of our Province’s public administration. Those who deliver services ought to be accountable to the people of Northern Ireland through elected representatives; the boards and bodies that we have created down through the years have too many placemen who are not answerable to any electorate in any part of Northern Ireland.

However, Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to make it clear that opting for seven councils is the wrong decision for Northern Ireland.

Not many people would seriously argue that we need 26 councils to perform the functions of local government. However, the reduction to seven is several steps too far, for many reasons.

This morning, one of the Sinn Féin/IRA represent-atives accused us of not being able to give any reasons for our opposition to the seven-council model. There is one glaringly obvious reason for seven councils being a bridge too far: there is no evidence of any political support in Northern Ireland for the reduction from 26 councils to seven.

Other Members have said that the seven-council model will lead to a carve-up in parts of the south and west of our Province, handing them over to republican control. If it is wrong at this time to put into the Government of Northern Ireland those who cannot commit themselves to the rule of law and who cannot support the Police Service of Northern Ireland or the courts system, it is equally wrong to give those same individuals, and that same party, power over the seven-council model.

It was interesting to listen to this morning’s tirade from the Sinn Féin/IRA representative on the importance of European funding. The Member would like to corral us into the view that if we accept the European model as the delivery mechanism that we should all pursue, it could equally give us the same control in a council west of the Bann. We must ensure that local authorities are controlled in a way that is not detrimental to any section of our community.

These proposals for a seven-council model are shoddy and have only served to unite democratic political parties in this Assembly. On that basis, we exclude Sinn Féin, for whom democracy is but one option, one possibility, one string to its bow. For it, democracy is only a hobby, a tactic, a means to an end. Having got wind of the fact that the Government were going to opt for the seven-council model, Sinn Féin chose to back what it saw as the winner. In a classic piece of political scavenging, it changed course in order to be seen to be clever and ahead of the game. However, it must have forgotten to inform the Sinn Féin Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and left him not knowing exactly what day of the week it was. How could he have got it so wrong? Did he believe that Gerry and Martin were talking about RPGs (rocket propelled grenades)?

Photo of Davy Hyland Davy Hyland Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Sinn Féin Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a female, not a male.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

He is talking about the other Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Yet again Sinn Féin has got it absolutely wrong. Francie Molloy thought that Gerry and Martin were talking about RPGs and not the RPA. Naturally enough, he concluded that he would need more of them.

Photo of Davy Hyland Davy Hyland Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. If the Member is referring to Francie Molloy, he is a Member for Mid Ulster. The Member opposite should get it right for a change.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Naturally enough Francie Molloy concluded that he would need a pitiful seven, just in case they had to go back to what they do best.

However, we need to be absolutely clear about where this seven-council proposal came from. Why are we considering the reduction of 26 district councils to seven? Let me remind Members of a former Member of this House, a Mr Foster. It is not Ivan on this occasion, or my hon Friend Arlene either. [Interruption.] I would have been happy if it had been he.

Let me remind Members what Sam Foster said at the Ulster Unionist conference in 2000:

“In England, the average county council unitary authority serves almost 700,000 people and the average district council close to 100,000.”

Function, form, size and location are all aspects that we need to examine afresh to increase the effectiveness of our councils. Had Mr Foster had his way, the Govern-ment would not have suggested seven, six, five, four or possibly three councils in Northern Ireland, and that proposal would have fitted the analysis of the situation.

We must always remind the House that there is a consequence for the actions that we take. There are many Members running through the country saying that water charges are terrible, industrial rating is an awful thing, but remember: it was the decisions that were taken by this Assembly in a previous life that brought about those recommendations and that situation. The same is said of RPA — this was the place where it started. [Interruption.]

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Order. Your time is up, Mr Storey.

The next speaker is Mr Philip McGuigan, and this is the first occasion on which the Assembly has heard from Mr McGuigan. He will be making his maiden speech. As Members know, it is convention that such a speech is heard without interruption.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

I declare an interest in that I am a member of Ballymoney Council. I have had the honour of listening to Mr Storey use any given subject for debate to launch a tirade against Sinn Féin and those who vote for and support us.

I listened with great interest to all that was said this morning and cannot help but draw the same con-clusions that my party colleagues have drawn: the arguments put forward by those on the opposite side of the Chamber against the current RPA arrangements just do not stack up.

While I do not want to touch on all that has gone before us this morning, I want to tackle a few points, particularly the point that was laboured by Tommy Gallagher and Peter Weir with regard to the economies of scale and the rates distribution — in their terms, the fair rates distribution.

People should remember that the proposals for the seven-council model came about as a result of an independent investigation into the matter. If the House does not want to take our word for it, listen to the words of the Equality Commission, which has said:

“Fewer councils could assist in better distribution of resources between council areas. More councils are likely to have a greater unevenness in the rating basis with a greater mismatch between demand for services and local government income generated through rates.”

The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) has said that seven councils will create the most equal property wealth base.

I also want to refer to the point that Peter Weir made when he talked about the inequalities and the differential between rate bases which currently exist within councils. He then went on to propose a 12-council model, but he failed to explain how the 26 councils could be reduced to 12 without tackling the differential rate base.

I also want to take up the point that was made this morning about Sinn Féin being on its own, or, in some cases, a lackey to the British Government. I do not think that Sinn Féin could ever be accused of being a lackey to the British Government, and we are not, as has been said this morning, on our own in supporting these proposals. My colleague Alex Maskey referred to a number of groups who support the seven-council model. Those groups include the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the Rural Community Network, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), NICVA, the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), Friends of the Earth, the Institute of Directors, the North West Public Sector Group, the Tourist Board in the North, the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, Help the Aged and Derry Chamber of Commerce to name a few. It is obvious that these proposals, which currently exist in the review of public administration, have widespread support throughout the community.

While I realise that the review of public administration covers a wide group of subjects, I want to focus particularly on Tommy Gallagher’s notion that the seven-council model will underpin sectarianism and community division.

When people use that argument, I ask myself where they have been for the last 30 years. If they want to see a model that underpins sectarianism and community division, they should open their eyes and look at the current model. Are Castlereagh, Lisburn, Ballymena, Coleraine, Newtownabbey or Ballymoney — my own council — beacons of pluralism and good practice in promoting equality and power sharing? In unionist-controlled councils, a LeasCheann Comhairle, the practice of widespread and systematic discrimination is the norm. In any new arrangement, that needs to be addressed. As Mr Maskey said earlier, Sinn Féin’s support for any new arrangement is predicated on the need for appropriate safeguards to protect both elected representatives and the ratepayers whom they serve.

Much has been made by the SDLP, in the media and in public, of the term “Balkanisation”. I remind the SDLP that that term means “the proliferation of ethnically-defined areas”. It stands to reason that the greater the number of councils, the more Balkanised local government will become. The SDLP fails to explain what will be different in an 11- or 15-council model. How would the boundaries be drawn? The seven-council model does not create the sectarian bipolarity that defines the geography of the Six Counties; the same sectarian line can be drawn on the map of any other proposal.

More than any other model, 7C appears to ensure that each council area will have a minority community of sufficient size to ensure its inclusion in the arrange-ments for the governance of the proposed council. As a councillor who lives in the north-east of Ireland, dare I say that that is a very welcome prospect. That is not simply my opinion, nor that of Sinn Féin; it is the opinion of the Equality Commission that the best option, on equality grounds, is to have the smallest number of councils that will secure effective service provision.

Sinn Féin is serious about equality and about political emancipation. The importance of the opportunity offered by the seven-council model should not be lost on unionists, particularly those who live in border areas and who fear assimilation and erosion of their political identity and culture. As has been said on many occasions, a LeasCheann Comhairle, when we in Sinn Féin talk about equality, we mean equality for all. When examples of bad and bad practice are compared, that becomes clear.

I want to see local government in the North move forward in an effective manner; the shackles that hinder local councillors from making more effective changes removed; councillors from all political parties and perspectives working together to enhance the lives of their communities and of all who live in the Six Counties; and stronger councils driving local communities forward. Provided appropriate equality measures and power sharing are implemented, those objectives are best served by the proposals of the review of public administration. I have heard nothing in the arguments of others today to deflect me from that view. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Samuel Gardiner Samuel Gardiner UUP 2:15 am, 5th December 2006

I declare at the outset that I am a member of Craigavon Borough Council in the Upper Bann constituency.

The seven-council model is a system designed by bureaucrats for bureaucrats. A new system of local government should, instead, be modelled around democracy and local participation, giving life to local communities and pushing meaningful decision-making down as far as possible within the system. Even by its own standards, the seven-council model fails miserably. The effective abandonment of the principle of coterminosity of services means that there is no standardisation of governance between health, education and local government. The failure to achieve coterminosity wipes away any gains that may be made in economies of scale and critical mass.

It would be no exaggeration to say that coterminosity was the central organising principle behind public administration reform in the first place. The whole idea was to have democracy accountable at every level across a broad range of public services. That vision has been lost — instead we are facing a repeat performance of the confused pattern of demarcation lines of the public services under the existing system.

Why has the objective of coterminosity — and its underlying principles of local democracy and account-ability — been quietly abandoned? Why did it cease to matter? Lack of coterminosity has led to ludicrous situations. Consider the example of the so-called banana republic council area, a proposed merger of Lisburn, Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus and Antrim.

In the further education sector, however, Lisburn Institute of Further and Higher Education is to be merged with the North Down and Ards Institute, which is in a totally different council area. The East Antrim Institute of Further and Higher Education in Newtownabbey is to be merged with the North East Institute of Further and Higher Education in Ballymena in yet a third council area — so much for rationalisation. If that is the best that the RPA planners can come up with, it is time that this Assembly sorted them out.

We are embarking on a seven-council model, creating units with an average population of 250,000, when average council sizes elsewhere are much smaller. Even those Members who favour greater integration with the Irish Republic must have difficulty under-standing why council areas will cover a population of 250,000 when the average size of council in the Irish Republic is only 100,000. Unionist-minded people wonder why an average council in Scotland or Wales has 100,000 inhabitants, while we must make do with remote super-councils.

Likewise, everyone wonders why decision-making in Northern Ireland is to be taken away from local areas to remote super-councils, when the English model that is currently being constructed is designed to push the decision-making process as far down the system as possible — in some cases even into local neighbourhoods.

Northern Ireland is a small place, suited to small council areas that reflect historical patterns of local identity. People cannot possibly be expected to identify with remote super-councils that often sit some distance from many of the areas that they govern. That is bound to lead to yet more people failing to engage with local democracy. Voter turnout at council elections will, I predict, fall further.

At a time when we in Northern Ireland should be bolstering democracy and the democratic process, the option 7C model will effectively kill democracy and further reduce public participation in the democratic process. The political vacuum created by direct rule and the lack of accountable local Ministers has already undermined that. Instead, we should take measures designed to boost democracy, and give people the sense that they can make a difference and that they can change things.

It is strange that one aspect of the option 7C model that retains some balance of level involvement — the creation of civic councils involving elected represent-atives and business interests in local towns within the new super-council areas — has been quietly forgotten and abandoned. That is why I have called for the civic council proposals to be revisited. No matter what model or number of councils we eventually opt for, we must nurture the democratic process; not cosh it.

The process of public administration reform has been as flawed as its conclusions. Discussion about the regeneration of the education boards is meaningless without the inclusion of the Department of Education. Public administration must include the entire system of public administration for the reform to be meaningful. Leaving the functions of Stormont Departments out of the equation actually influences the outcome of that reform. How can a realistic restructuring of local administration be undertaken without reference to this Assembly?

Now that the Assembly seems to be back on track, the process of arriving at a seven-council model must surely be revisited and revised. The way that local councils relate to this Assembly is the single most important consideration for the smooth operation of Government in Northern Ireland in the future.

It is also intolerable that public money should continue to be spent developing the seven-council model, when four of the five major parties in the Assembly are opposed to it, and the likelihood of a seven-council model being agreed by this Assembly is almost zero. There should be no more public money spent on pursuing the seven-council model until the Assembly pronounces on the subject. The whole process and outcome of the reform of public administration is so flawed, incomplete and erratic that it will have to be examined again, root and branch, by the Assembly.

As a member of the political panel, I have drawn the Ulster Unionist Party’s concerns on the seven-council model to the Minister’s attention time and again, but thus far he has not made a final decision. I hope that the powers necessary for Northern Ireland to go forward will be back with this Assembly.

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP

This is a lively debate. There is no doubt about the importance of trying to get the future of local government right. I listened today to the Members opposite talk about equality and fairness. However, let me relate to the House a story that, I think, is important to the debate.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Mr Hay, have you anything to declare?

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP

Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have quite a lot to declare. I am a member of a particular council in Londonderry, and I have been for many years.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

On a point of order, a LeasCheann Comhairle. To clear up any confusion, will the Member declare the name of the council?

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

That is not a point of order.

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP

The party opposite talks about fairness and equality, but I can remember — not that long ago — when a member of Sinn Féin came into the Guildhall, where the council was meeting, and decided to set a bomb there. That happened on two occasions — not just one. Do Members know how Sinn Féin rewarded that party member? It selected him as a candidate for the next local government elections, at which he was successful. That was the work of Sinn Féin and the entire republican movement. Therefore that political party endorsed that candidate for what he had done. Not only did he blow up the Guildhall where the council sits, but he put lives at risk, and he had the audacity to fail to apologise for his actions. That happened in the early 1980s. The Members opposite talk about equality and fairness; however, I give that example of their associates’ actions — I hope that the organisation has moved on from that.

Members will agree that local government in Northern Ireland has worked reasonably well over the years, even with the limited powers that it had. I will go even further and say that over 30-odd years — the difficult years in Northern Ireland — it was the only political and democratic voice that ordinary people had. The public could go to their individual council areas and express their views on issues. That was a useful tool; there was no other political forum in which ordinary people could participate.

Over the years, local government has also been hugely successful in many aspects of driving forward economic development, inward investment and job creation in the individual areas. On occasions, even with limited powers, they were able to give a lead on many issues. It is important that the House should recognise that and recognise the work of local government over the difficult years in Northern Ireland.

There are 26 district councils, four health boards, 19 health trusts, five education boards and about 100 quangos serving a population of 1·7 million. Members will agree that that cannot be defended. For the future of Northern Ireland, there must be strong local government that is fit for purpose in the twenty-first century. That is what everyone in the House is trying to achieve. The new councils should be at the heart of front-line service delivery as well as civic life. They should represent the needs of communities and ensure that local services are delivered efficiently and effectively. However, the seven-council model cannot deliver that; the councils will be very remote from their communities.

We need to change and modernise local government in Northern Ireland. At the moment, it is going through change from within and without. It is also important to remember that the Northern Ireland Office is pushing ahead in order to ensure that most of the work will be done and that any future Assembly, when it is up and running, will find it difficult to reverse those decisions. Civil servants and Ministers are not listening. They intend to drive through these policies in the knowledge that a local Assembly could change some aspects of the RPA. I have no quarrel with civil servants; however, they appear to be driving the RPA through as quickly as possible in the interests of the Secretary of State and the direct rule Ministers, so that when the House is up and running, there will be very little that anyone can do about it. That is the great worry. There is no doubt that the Secretary of State is not listening to the majority of the political parties in Northern Ireland. I hope that he is listening today and will take on board some of the genuine concerns expressed by Members for the future of local government here.

There is a great debate about additional powers for the councils. If that is to be the case, I have no problem, but there must be serious checks and balances. As councillors, we all deal with planning issues. At present, planning is a mess in Northern Ireland. The resources required to deal with planning are not available. Responsibility for planning will now pass to local government but without extra resources.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 2:30 am, 5th December 2006

Does the Member agree that if local government is to get additional powers for planning and roads — which we all welcome — that is worthwhile only if it is properly funded, and that what is proposed at present would leave a black hole in funding? Planning and roads, for instance, are currently underfunded, and there is a real danger that that would have to be passed on to the ratepayer.

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP

I support the Member’s comments. That is a fear that is shared by most of the political parties. Where do we stand on the issue of more powers? Will it simply be a mess when it comes to roads and planning? Will we get more resources? I doubt very much whether we shall get any more resources.

We do not have a sympathetic ear in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) when we raise such issues. There seems to be a notion that the NIO will divide Northern Ireland up, and lump it with more powers and responsibilities, but not give it more resources. That is of deep concern, especially to people who live in rural areas. Rural dwellers feel the pinch first when any cutbacks are made, be those in roads or in housing. We all know how they are suffering now when it comes to rural planning. However, the RPA will cause great concern to the whole population.

Many issues concerning the reorganisation of local government have not been properly thought out for the simple reason that we have civil servants here who are continually pushing an agenda. I would prefer them to slow down on the reform of local government and the rest of the RPA in order to allow this House eventually to deal with issues such as planning, roads, health and education that come to us daily from the public. The public are pushing forward all those matters, and if we are not very careful when the new local authorities are set up, everything will be in an absolute mess. The finger will not be pointed at civil servants; it will be pointed at this House.

(Madam Speaker in the Chair)

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I wish to declare that I am a member of Lisburn City Council.

The outcome of the RPA must be proven to be consistent with Government commitments on equality, new targeting social need (New TSN), human rights and rural proofing. Although it is clear that many issues were raised through the nine task forces, and that will continue when a further structure is set up to replace them, it is important for there to be equality proofing of any future process and proposals. The importance of that cannot be overstated. Equality proofing was designed to inform and influence policy as it is being developed and not, as previous documents suggest, to be used at the end of a process when it becomes very difficult to influence that policy.

I am also concerned about the potential negative impact of the RPA on the participation rates of women in public life. Those rates are already disproportionately low. I commend the ongoing initiatives among the Local Government Staff Commission for Northern Ireland, NILGA and the National Association of Councillors (NAC) to deal with that problem, but, as part of any implementation plan that is produced, we must ensure that public bodies become more representative of the people whom they serve.

We heard earlier that developments in the health sector are to be made before developments in education services and local government. The fear in the health sector is that many of the job losses there will be women’s jobs. Of course, the opportunity for them to move among the other sectors will not arise, because that sector is moving first. The Secretary of State has already announced that many of those jobs that will be lost will be those of administrators and back-office workers, and we know that the private sector has not grown sufficiently to take in that number of employees.

Good-quality, well managed public services are essential to equality of opportunity and the creation of a healthy participative democracy. It is important that services are provided consistently and that there is no postcode lottery, which we have now. We must ensure a levelling-up of services, not a levelling-down. Equality issues must, therefore, remain central to this debate until the end.

The community and voluntary sector has been mentioned. That sector is worried about how its voice will be heard in the super-councils. At present, many community and voluntary organisations have lines of communication and good working relationships or partnerships with their local councils. They believe that the word “local” has been taken out of local government. They want to know how they will have a voice on the new community planning groups, given that many of those groups will be representative of perhaps four or more current councils at any one time. The scrapping of the local health and social care groups has left their users with no voice until the new structures are set up in 2008. Where will they have a voice in the interim? Those are just some of the issues that concern people in the community and voluntary sector.

Some community and voluntary groups say that they have been told by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action and others that if we have these super-councils there will be a better chance of their getting mainstream funding, which would make them more sustainable in the long term. However, Lord Rooker told my colleagues and me that there is no way in which any money saved from the RPA is going to go to the pork barrel in Northern Ireland. That is what he thinks of the community and voluntary sector.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Patricia’s colleague Michael Carr is a member of the community planning subgroup. Like the rest of its members, he more or less signed off on its proposal that communities must be involved in the community plan process. I suggest that political leadership is required here from people like Ms Lewsley and her colleagues, who are involved in these deliberations but obviously are not telling people out there. People are asking why the SDLP is not in a position to tell them what its members are agreeing to.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am sorry, but I am voicing the opinion of the community and voluntary groups that are coming to me in my constituency. At the end of the day, I need to make this quite clear: any members of the SDLP that were on any subgroups said from the outset that they were not signing off on any decisions that were made there.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does my colleague not agree that there are huge concerns in the broader community that some political parties and their representatives will muscle in on many of the residents’ associations and other community and voluntary groups and take over the community planning process?

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am very grateful for both of those interventions.

I note the research on the profiles of the social need indicators for the seven-council models, but I do not accept that a mixed social profile is the only or best guarantor of equality. Given the other factors that I have just mentioned in relation to local government, we can best promote equality in the context of a more accessible, responsive and flexible arrangement with more than seven councils.

Today, we have talked about the Secretary of State and the — I believe misleading — information that he has given to the public about the vast savings that we are going to get from the RPA. We have not yet heard from any of the direct rule Ministers about the amount of money that is going to be set aside or the cost of implementing the review. In fact, many of us believe that it will cost more to implement than it will save.

It has also been mentioned that we need to ensure that budgets are not downsized by Departments in the months before the transfer to the new council structures, because, as Tommy Gallagher said, the cost will be given to the public to pay through the services that need to be delivered.

Alex Maskey’s speech took 15 minutes, and he spent most of that time having a go at the rest of us about why we would not support the seven-council model. I did not hear anything in his speech that encouraged me to support that model. He talked about the different subgroups, in particular the political subgroup, and he mentioned that John O’Kane and Dermot Curran from my party were both on it. When they were talking about checks and balances, Sinn Féin was not proposing the 20:80 threshold. When John O’Kane asked a member of his party —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. That is factually incorrect. My colleague Cllr Sean Begley and I rejected the figures presented —

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

That is not a point of order.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

They said that there would be no minorities of less than 25%. In fact, we have heard here today about the banana republic, and we believe that Sinn Féin has sold out its own colleagues east of the Bann. In the new Inner East Local Government District there will be 13%. In fact, when Twinbrook, Poleglass and Lagmore go into Belfast, it could go as low as 10%. Is that a price that Sinn Féin is prepared to pay to ensure that it gets its power base west of the Bann? I do not know.

Mr Maskey talked about other parties and self-preservation, yet it was he who stood in the Long Gallery some months ago when Lord Rooker was launching the RPA and said that Sinn Féin had only supported the seven-council model because there would be 70 councillors on each one.

Is that not evidence of jobs for the boys?

It is funny how Mr Maskey was selective in the parts of Tommy Gallagher’s speech that he mentioned. He did not rebut the issue that Tommy Gallagher raised about the rates increase — was that because Sinn Féin has not thought about the rates burden that will fall on the public? Indeed, it was an afterthought when Mr Maskey mentioned coterminosity and local identity. Does that mean that Sinn Féin has backed the wrong horse, as many of its members across Northern Ireland are saying? The fact that Francie Molloy is absent from the debate has already been mentioned.

The SDLP has been upfront and honest with the public — [Interruption.]

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

The SDLP has been upfront and honest with the public in outlining the real impact of the review of public administration.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am sorry; my time is nearly up.

I support, along with Michelle Gildernew — [Interruption.]

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you very much, Madam Speaker.

I am delighted to support the motion, along with Michelle Gildernew, rather than the amendment to it.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Members should show courtesy when other Members are speaking.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

This is the first occasion that this Assembly will hear from Ms Pat O’Rawe, when she will make what can be described as her maiden speech. As Members know, it is the convention that such a speech is made without interruption.

Photo of Patricia O'Rawe Patricia O'Rawe Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Before I begin, I state that I am a member of Armagh City and District Council. In supporting the amendment, I shall concentrate on the issue of equality in respect of women and the review of public administration. It has been rather disappointing that the debate has mainly focused on the number of councils, rather than on some of the other issues.

The review of public administration places many challenges before us all, and none more so than ensuring that women are not excluded from political life and participation in decision-making processes. There are many constraints that prevent women’s equal and meaningful representation and participation in decision-making. That is the reality that we face, whether it be in political parties, the women’s sector or as women working in the public sector.

A Cheann Comhairle, of the 144 posts in the top two tiers of local government officers, 20 are held by women. Furthermore, 54% of councils — that is 14 of the current 26 councils — have no female representation at all at those levels. Currently, there are only 125 women among a total of 582 councillors, although I hope that some of the issues relating to the number of women councillors and women council officers will be remedied in the future through the work of the women in local councils initiative.

Even in the Chamber, when all Members are present, we can all see that there are very few women in the Assembly. Figures relating to appointments to public bodies released on 31 March this year showed that 2,070 appointments were made in 107 public bodies. Women accounted for 32% of those appointments — a figure unchanged from the previous year.

Strategically, political parties, the women’s sector and the women’s movement need to ensure that the issue of women’s representation is placed firmly on the agenda. In other words, we must insist that compulsory, affirmative actions are integral to any structures that emerge from the review of public administration. From the current structure of local government, a scattergun approach is evidently being taken in adhering to equality mainstreaming and applying new targeting social need on the basis of objective need to deliver services that uplift the lives of those most marginalised in society.

A Cheann Comhairle, that cannot be allowed to be carried through into the review of public administration, no more than it should be the approach that is taken to the draft Priorities and Budget, to infrastructure investment, to job creation or to plans to introduce water charges. The fact is that female representation in local government is consistently low, despite attempts by political parties across the board to encourage women candidates to come forward.

Some parties, such as our own, take the issue more seriously than others, but there is still much work to be done. If we are serious about democratic equality for women, we must insist that it be an underpinning requirement of whatever RPA structures emerge. Representation without equal representation is neither desirable for a society that is emerging out of conflict nor acceptable from a democratic-rights-based approach to representation in its fullest sense. Much work is therefore required in the period ahead in order to form the effective civic and political partnerships that will shape, monitor and hold to account the changes that are coming in local governance and in other political and policy-related areas. I ask this Assembly to support the amendment in order to ensure that we have strong and effective local government that is underpinned by power sharing, equality and inclusion.

Photo of Ken Robinson Ken Robinson UUP

I begin by declaring my membership of Newtownabbey Borough Council, which is, incidentally, a most forward-looking council. It introduced wheelie bins to Northern Ireland, has led on economic-development issues, and, in 1999, it was the first council here to instigate a major European conference.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Does it cover Templepatrick?

Photo of Ken Robinson Ken Robinson UUP

It does indeed; we have our eyes on Templepatrick, and on Donegore.

We were also one of the first councils to twin with an emerging eastern European country: we are twinned with the city of Rybnik in southern Poland. For the benefit of the Member who gave the previous speech, I point out that my party group on Newtownabbey council has 50% female representation, the leader of my group is female, as is the Whip, and I feel quite marginalised. [Laughter.]

Any major changes in business or in government require a central organising logic. They must not simply amount to a numbers game. It seems to me that that logic is sadly missing from the proposed pattern of seven super-councils that is currently being imposed on Northern Ireland against the wishes of four of the five major political parties. [Interruption.]

Photo of Ken Robinson Ken Robinson UUP

I welcome the Member for Mid Ulster Mr Molloy to the Chamber. I look forward to his contribution to this debate. [Laughter.]

Four of the five political parties, which between them represent three quarters of the people of Northern Ireland, have been pushed aside by this move by central Government.

The ludicrous nature of some of the combinations that were proposed was evidenced by the failure of the authorities to find even suitable or meaningful names for the proposed super-councils. “Inner East” means nothing to anyone in the population centres of Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus, Antrim and the recently created city of Lisburn.

That banana-shaped monstrosity, which has been referred to before, does not even have an A-class road running through it to link it together. For most practical purposes, it is impossible to travel from one end to the other without going through the increasingly traffic-polluted city of Belfast. If there is ever to be a chance to create any sort of civic identity in any of the new council areas, those areas must make some sort of sense to the population that lives there. A consequence of the failure to engage with the inhabitants of an area will be a further drop in electoral engagement, which will result in the democratic legitimacy and credibility of the new structures being lost.

Northern Ireland is a small place, and, as we heard throughout yesterday’s debate, people have a deep attachment to, and connection with, their history on both sides of the main religious-political divide. If a seven-council model were being pursued, one has to wonder why historical county boundaries were not an option, which would have meant something to the people on the ground.

The whole pattern of reorganisation bears the stamp of bureaucracy and, one might add, “Hainery”. Of course the public were to be consulted, but be assured that we, the Government, will go for the Civil Service-driven seven-council model, anyway. It is reminiscent of Henry Ford when he said that people could have a Ford car in any colour as long as it was black. In this scenario, we can have any combination as long as it is seven. The process has the same stamp as the Secretary of State’s treatment of the Assembly, which is to ride roughshod over the wishes of three quarters of the people of the Province.

The seven-super-council model is deeply inappropriate for Northern Ireland, which is a Province of small communities. Beyond the conurbations of Belfast, Lisburn and Londonderry, it is largely a Province of small towns with strong local identities that have grown and developed over centuries. We should nurture those identities, not sweep them away. The pathetic proposal for civic councils, which was a belated attempt to keep local communities engaged, is simply window dressing.

The process of public consultation was deeply flawed. The format may have been adhered to, but unattributable leaks from the Government meant that there were going to be seven councils anyway. That made most people feel that a response to the proposals was a complete waste of time. It is another example of how the format of public consultation is adhered to, but not the spirit. We have seen several examples of that.

The whole point of reorganisation, in the first place, was to rationalise the plethora of boards, quangos, councils and bodies with borders that did not coincide and to create in their place a democratically accountable structure, where different services had the same boundaries and the same lines of democratic account-ability. That has not happened. Instead, the principle of coterminosity, which was one of the better ideas in the reorganisation, has been abandoned. What is the point of reorganisation if there are no organisational gains?

Madam Speaker, the position of the Assembly in relation to the new super-councils also concerns me. The new councils must be dovetailed into the Assembly system — to the Committees and the Executive. When the Assembly is operational, the proposed super-council structures will have to be reviewed. It is not prudent to press on with the council reorganisation when the Assembly — the democratic voice of the people of Northern Ireland — has not considered the issue in detail. The Assembly will have to live with the system.

The current departmental structure was referred to earlier, and it has, up to now, escaped scrutiny and the axe. The Departments have major spending powers, and have we not seen an ongoing saga of departmental failures and a waste of huge sums of public money? I see that Mr Dallat has joined us in the Chamber; he has highlighted that issue on many occasions. Surely now is the time to examine the Government and depart-mental structures, which have been exposed, thanks to the efforts of the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) and other related inquiries.

More than any tinkering with local government, departmental trimming would enhance the efficiency of government and save huge sums of public money rather than the minuscule amounts for which local government currently accounts.

To press on with seven super-councils before the Assembly is up and running fully is a deeply undemocratic way to proceed. That will pre-empt democratic decision-making on issues such as rates increases and water charges. There is a drive in some sections of the Government to turn those issues into a fait accompli before the democratically elected Assembly can debate and decide on them.

I support the motion.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Mr Thomas O’Reilly will now make his maiden speech. As Members know, it is the convention that such a speech be made without interruption.

Photo of Tom O'Reilly Tom O'Reilly Sinn Féin 3:00 am, 5th December 2006

I declare that I am a member of Fermanagh District Council, which is in the unique position of sharing its council and county boundaries. Fermanagh has always rightly been described as the jewel in the Six Counties. Whether there are seven or 15 council configurations, and regardless of their size, like many areas, Fermanagh has an identity that will not be lost.

Tommy Gallagher, who also represents my county, talked about job losses. Those job losses will not wait for the new councils to be established; they are happening daily. The area of Fermanagh that I represent has experienced many job losses. We need to work diligently to ensure that those losses do not continue either now or when a new council model is established.

We must protect people who work in places such as Fermanagh. If jobs were moved from that county to Belfast, for example, the people doing those jobs would have to travel tremendous distances. We must consider how they would survive if they had to travel such distances. A council model that would allow jobs to be retained in those areas would help many workers, particularly the low paid, who cannot afford to travel. The infrastructure west of the Bann is poor, and Rosslea, a small village in Fermanagh, is serviced by one bus a week. There is not much hope of people being able to use that service to travel to Belfast for work. Therefore jobs in that area need to stay local, and that means having a council model that is big enough to deliver services and stop their daily pull into centres such as Belfast.

Advancements in technology have given us the opportunity to move away from relying on travelling to centres such as Belfast. We have all heard the term “distance learning”, and given that information technology (IT) is used to acquire an education, the principle behind that could be applied to distance working. For example, that principle could apply to the hundreds of civil servants who travel daily to Belfast, negotiating the perils of traffic jams to do so. On arrival at their respective places of work in Government Departments, the majority of those people spend their entire working day sitting in front of computers, week in and week out.

Why should they have to make round trips from places such as Fermanagh? Those trips cover distances of over 150 miles and can add anything up to four or five hours to a working day. With facilities such as the Internet, broadband, webcams and teleconferencing, there is no logical reason why those people could not perform their duties as efficiently as they do in Belfast from workstations in Fermanagh or other places.

That would not mean the decentralisation of the entire Civil Service; it would simply require that it find local accommodation for its staff. It could even save money by sharing offices and by not paying travel allowances.

I have no doubt that other areas could house people from their localities who have to commute. Not only could that be more efficient but it would greatly reduce absenteeism by removing the stress of having to battle through traffic jams and congestion every working day.

As a direct result of civil servants being predominantly based in Belfast, the vast bulk of economic activity and wealth in the Six Counties is also centred around Belfast. That encourages those who make economic decisions on investment and infrastructure to give priority to projects that will impact on the political centres, which works to the detriment of other areas, particularly areas west of the Bann, such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

However, if some of those who influence those decisions were detached from the centre, they might be better motivated to make a greater impact on decisions affecting regions outside the main conurbation.

Locating large numbers of Civil Service jobs to regional areas through distance working could help stimulate economic activity and would, in turn, attract further investment and create opportunities for local industries. It is well documented that investors and developers are attracted to locations that have a con-centration of Government Departments and agencies. It is obvious that the principle is well enough understood at senior policy-making level, yet the fixation with investing in Belfast and consolidating Government in the Belfast metropolitan area continues unabated.

It is time for Fermanagh and South Tyrone to challenge that; it is time for a change. It is a time to invest in teleworking technologies, challenges and opportunities. An over-concentration of Government-related work in Belfast has had a negative impact on investment in other urban and rural areas.

When viewed over decades, it is clear that this policy has contributed to rural depopulation, poverty and deprivation in many areas. In the North, the old unionist regime’s discriminatory practices contributed to the urban decline west of the Bann. More than 80% of all investment in the North over the past five years has been in Belfast.

The policy has therefore not changed or ended despite the equality legislation introduced after the Good Friday Agreement. That is why Sinn Féin demanded at the St Andrews discussions that the British Govern-ment accept the requirement that every policy and departmental decision be subject to an equality impact assessment. That is one of the most far-reaching aspects of those negotiations, and Sinn Féin will hold those Departments and agencies to account to ensure that regional disparities are detected and progressively eliminated.

I have heard nothing today that has dissuaded me from the idea that the seven-council model is the best model through which to not only deliver services, but to give those services the size and budget that will really make a difference. Assembly Members who are also councillors will certainly understand how little power councillors have. For example, planning is one area over which councillors have very little power. If we have a job to do at council level, we must have the ability to do it effectively. We need a budget that can make a difference and not a budget that is tied up in so much red tape that it is practically spent before we get it. So many major problems face us: the implementation of water charges; the cuts in education; and so on. We must be able to deal with those issues at a local level.

I have heard much talk about who is missing from the Chamber. I see that Seán Farren, the former Minister of Finance and Personnel, has not appeared in the Chamber today. He was one of those who was pushing through the legislation for the introduction of water charges. It is certainly interesting to see who is not here.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I also am a member of Fermanagh District Council. [Interruption.]

I note that you are not a member of any council, Ian. [Laughter.] You asked for that.

There are two issues that I want to address before I move to the substantive part of my speech. Members of Sinn Féin raised two of those issues. First, there is the matter of the participation of more females in local government. The simple fact is that fewer councillors will mean fewer women councillors. That was completely missed in the Member for Newry and Armagh Mrs O’Rawe’s submission to the House. Secondly, the Sinn Féin Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Ms Gildernew said that the area would not be able to lobby effectively for anything if there were not seven super-councils. If Fermanagh and South Tyrone is subsumed with Omagh and Cookstown, we will find it considerably more difficult to lobby for jobs or anything else for that matter.

I welcome today’s debate. As other Members have said, it is long overdue. We have, however, heard no sound reason for there being seven councils. That is not a proposition: it is a fact. We have heard plenty of attacks from Sinn Féin on other parties, but it has given no sound reason for only seven councils. The idea may sound good in theory. However, in practice, as many councillors have pointed out in the Chamber today, it would be ill-conceived. Councillors are the people who know how the system works, not the long list of bodies that have been read out by Sinn Féin, which have not received a single vote between them.

Sinn Féin has tried in vain to cover its blushes from its electorate. As previous contributors on this side of the House and, indeed, from the SDLP have pointed out, the seven-council model will lead to a sectarian carve-up of Northern Ireland and, therefore, polarisation. Fermanagh District Council is a county council. I would prefer it to remain so. However, even if there had been a move towards coterminosity with the Westminster boundaries, that would have been a more effective way of dealing with, and lobbying on, many issues of concern in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

My colleague Mr Peter Weir, the former president of NILGA, has dealt effectively with many of the spurious claims that we have heard from the party on the Benches opposite. I want to outline what the seven-county model would mean for my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The House has heard an elected Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone try to justify the seven-county model as being good for rural dwellers. What patent nonsense that is. How could it be better for rural dwellers to be further cut off from the east of the Province? That is what will happen. I have long complained about my constituency’s being forgotten about by the east. If it were sidelined in the past with regard to investment, there is no doubt that that will be worse under the super-council model.

The West Local Government District, which would run from Belcoo to the shores of Lough Neagh, would be left to get on with business and would be forgotten about totally by the east of the Province. There would be no community identification, which would lead to alienation from the local political process. Let me tell the House that if people switch off from local politics, they will switch off from all politics, including the Assembly, if they have not done so already.

The Fermanagh District Council area is known for its natural beauty and tourism. After agriculture, tourism is its biggest industry. The council has, through necessity, carved an effective corporate image for itself, not least in relation to tourism. As my colleague Mr Hay mentioned, councils throughout Northern Ireland have had to take the lead on many occasions with regard to the economy. I say, “through necessity” in relation to tourism, because central Government and, indeed, the body that is charged with tourism promotion, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, have done little to promote the jewel in Northern Ireland’s crown, namely the Fermanagh Lakelands.

It has been left to Fermanagh District Council to promote the tourism potential of the area, which it does very well, but what will happen under the option 7C model? Who will promote the Fermanagh lakeland when it must compete with Omagh, Cookstown and Dungannon? That issue does not seem to bother the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but I wish to inform the House that I do care, as do the many people whose livelihoods depend on tourism in Fermanagh.

Safeguards will be vital in any new system. We have heard much from the party opposite about sectarianism, as if it only happens to its members. Sinn Féin is the largest party in my council, and it has tried to stop the flying of the Union flag at the royal pipe band competition —an event that brings significant revenue to Enniskillen, where I am a councillor. At a council meeting just last night, Sinn Féin made a song and dance about a grant of £100 for capacity building to a group of innocent victims in south-east Fermanagh — so much for equality and respect.

Sinn Féin may continue to pursue intimidation by other means, but there are those of us in purely democratic parties who will continue to hold the line, no matter how difficult that may be. It is time for Sinn Féin to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. That is not the case in relation to the review of public administration alone, but in relation to policing and support for the courts and the rule of law.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP 3:15 am, 5th December 2006

In making my speech, I will try to stick to the Standing Orders under which we operate.

I support the motion. However, I must address several issues that other Members have raised. I do so now because comments were made in maiden speeches, which, as the Speaker pointed out, cannot be interrupted.

Mr O’Reilly mentioned depopulation caused by unionism. How dare a Sinn Féin representative from County Fermanagh tell us about depopulation in an area where Protestants faced ethnic cleansing, as has also happened in my constituency of West Tyrone? How dare you, Thomas. I am sorry; I had to say that.

What about people on the west bank of the Foyle?

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Mr Hussey, you said at the beginning of your contribution that you would abide by Standing Orders. As I said, Members should be very careful about naming other Members, and their speeches should keep to the motion.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

I declare an interest as a member of Strabane District Council and, as the motion relates to the RPA, I declare my membership of the Western Education and Library Board, which is also part of the review.

In relation to your advice to me, Madam Speaker, I referred to remarks that I could not address at the time they were made because of the rule concerning maiden speeches. I feel very strongly about that.

Mr McGuigan spoke of equality for all. Perhaps he could convey that message to his party colleagues in my neck of the woods, who are regularly orchestrating opposition to expressions of local cultural identity. Is that equality?

The motion concerns the rationalisation of local government. I support a 15-council model, which would not change the colour of the particular council that I wish to be part of — a west Tyrone council. The model adopted will make no difference to me, as my council will still be a republican/nationalist-dominated council. However, I support the motion on the basis of its logic.

Mrs O’Rawe was concerned that the debate centred on the number of councils, and quite rightly so. The RPA is about much more than local councils. However, local councils should be the building blocks that can be utilised in the wider review of public administration.

The issue of coterminosity has been lost in the present proposals. There is a coterminosity that is inbuilt within the parliamentary constituency boundaries, and that should have been recognised. A natural electoral pyramid system is available within those boundaries. There are councillors, MLAs and an MP — a natural progression that could be utilised for dovetailing other services, including education, health, the Roads Service, the Water Service, and the Housing Executive. Such a situation already exists in building control, for example, where we have the grouping system. That could quite easily have been utilised to bring us all together in group systems to deal with the bigger issues of health, education, etc, and would have an extremely effective coterminosity. That has been lost. Late in the day, the Government agreed, or accepted, that local identity had to be maintained within local government. They accepted the principle, but they did not enact that principle in the hames — the Hain’s hames — that they have produced and offered to us all.

In my area — I am looking around, but most of my “Team West Tyrone” colleagues have disappeared — there are those who are worried that minorities will be left out. However, in my area, which I hope will become one of the councils — a west Tyrone council — councillors have proved that they can work together on bread-and-butter issues. There are constitutional differences, but surely this is the sort of thing that should be developed in local government: locally elected representatives working together for the local good. Where is the local identity in what has been proposed? Madam Speaker and Members of the Assembly, I just do not see it. As has been rightly said already, I do not know what somebody on the shores of Lough Neagh will have in common with somebody on the other side of the lough in Fermanagh. There is no commonality.

Reference has been made to INTERREG III. Again, there is a grouping system that operates along the border corridor — Sinn Féin has referred to it — with the three cross-border groups, now joined by the internal group in Northern Ireland. I sit on an INTERREG IIIA partnership and am a past chairperson of the North West Region Cross Border Group, and I am quite content with that. Within it, INTERREG IIIA is feeding in. It has been claimed that INTERREG IIIA partnerships would be happier with the seven-council system. I cannot see how that would work logically.

Another means of INTERREG IIIA funding is through the local strategy partnerships. Where are they going? Would there be a local strategy partnership covering the entire south-west, or covering the entire north-west? No, thank you.

Mr Maskey talked about community development. What better example has there been of community development than that witnessed in my area? I am sure that Members will have seen community development strategies developed through local strategy partnerships in other areas. Those are the good things that we need to maintain. Local identity must be maintained and coterminosity can be attained in an extremely logical way by the use of a 15-council model — a model that does work and will work.

Sinn Féin expressed concern that minorities would be left out. Mr Weir said that the intention was that the same number of councillors would be retained, and that, therefore, the electoral threshold for each elected representative would remain the same. How does one lose out on representation? I cannot see the logic of it. As the motion says:

“allow the decision on future council arrangements to be taken by a restored Northern Ireland Assembly.”

Let this debate develop in here — unless Sinn Féin is aware that it will not live up to its pillar of the twin pillars that are required and does not expect a proper Northern Ireland Assembly to come into being. If that is the case, Sinn Féin should say so or houl yer whisht.

Wait until the parties can make their own decisions. I ask the Minister to allow the parties to make our own decisions, have the sort of debate that we are having now and allow a democratic decision, a majority democratic decision to come forth from the Assembly.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, I apologise that I have a cold today. Yesterday, Members debated at length the events of 24 November 2006. I remember only that I got wet and cold, and I still have the cold.

While canvassing during my first election campaign, I called at the home of the retiring councillor for the area, John McAteer. I have never forgotten his words of assurance to me. John, who has since sadly passed away, told me that the people knew me, that I knew the people and that I would do OK.

I was duly elected, and during my term on the council I learned the importance of my predecessor’s words. I represented the rural areas of Burren, Ballyholland and Derrylecka and, as a local councillor, it was important to me that I knew the people whom I represented. I realised that it was equally important to the local ratepayers to know their representative.

No one in the Assembly, from whatever constituency, who claims to have the interests of his rural constituents at heart should remotely consider supporting the direct rulers’ proposals to carve up our cherished rural identities.

Under the present structures, it is fair to assume that every voter in Northern Ireland knows at least one councillor and that most councillors personally know 75% to 80% of the families in their electoral areas. If the new structures are forced upon us, all that will change and the majority of rural electors will not know a councillor, and councillors will have little or no knowledge of the majority of people from their electoral areas. If the direct rule Ministers have their way and Sinn Féin continues to support the British on the RPA proposals, the word “local” will be taken out of local government.

In May, speaking at the Balmoral Show breakfast event, Lord Rooker clearly outlined his desire to see the Assembly controlled by Northern Ireland politicians sooner rather than later. The departing Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development qualified his comments by stating that local input and decision-making is best when carried out by local people. The Minister was referring to the Assembly, but it is even easier to apply the same sentiments when speaking about rural residents and rural government structures.

Today, several Members referred to rural communities and the farming community. Reference was also made to the support of the Ulster Farmers’ Union for the seven councils. I have no argument with its taking that line — and I must declare that I am a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union and greatly admire its work. However, everyone would agree that the Ulster Farmers’ Union, in the main, represents those with larger farms in Northern Ireland.

Members in this corner of the House are concerned with all farmers, whether they own five, 10 or 50 acres of land. Those with small farms and smaller rural communities lose out. It is interesting to note that the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association (NIAPA), which represents those with smaller farms, has not yet taken a line on the proposals. It has not rushed into supporting the proposals, and perhaps that sends a message.

The RPA proposals will greatly diminish the voter/councillor relationship. In the South Down area, the amalgamation of Newry and Mourne District Council, Banbridge District Council, Armagh City and District Council and Craigavon Borough Council will result in an approximate ratio of 4,400 electors per councillor.

Regrettably, such a high ratio per councillor means that representatives will not know their constituents personally. It is even more disturbing that many rural ratepayers and residents will not know their local councillor. It is fair to assume that, unlike the present structures, officials with little or no knowledge of the areas to be covered by the super-councils will administer the proposed amalgamations.

I looked at the ratios in nearby jurisdictions. Although governing systems differ from country to country, the figures were interesting. After the restructuring of local government in Wales, the ratio of local government electors is 1,761 per councillor. In the Republic of Ireland, the ratio is 1,654 electors per councillor, and in Scotland the ratio of 3,200 electors per councillor is considerably higher.

To make further comparisons and to highlight the concerns of many, I shall list the differentials of the numbers of people for each elected representative in six other European countries. The systems in those countries may be different, but they demonstrate the importance that is attached to local politics and to the need to have contactable representatives in all areas. In Spain the population differential for each elected representative is 610, in Finland it is 410, in Germany it is 350, in Sweden it is 256, in Austria it is 209, and in France it is 118. In Northern Ireland the average differential for each of the current 26 council structures is approximately 2,500 people for each elected representative. Many people, including some of the political parties, consider that differential to be slightly low, and it is accepted that changes to that could be tolerated. However, as I stated in my opening remarks, rural representatives in Northern Ireland cannot accept the ill-conceived changes that are being foisted upon us by English and Scottish direct-rule Ministers.

Members should remember that we are not discussing European electoral areas, parliamentary or even Assembly constituencies; we are discussing local government areas and the important role that councils play in local communities.

There are additional reasons to challenge direct-rule Ministers’ treatment of Northern Ireland. Members need only look at previous reviews in other jurisdictions to find that in Scotland, the number of local authorities was reduced by 51%, and in Wales a similar 51% reduction was applied. However, in Northern Ireland a drastic reduction of 73% is proposed.

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

I referred in my opening remarks to the rural areas of Ballyholland and Derrylecka, and those are the best examples that I can give of rural communities that are under threat. If the proposed draconian measure were implemented, those two areas, over 100 streets, avenues and cul-de-sacs would be merged into a ward of the City of Newry. Those making the recommend-ations — and others who are content to let them be implemented — are prepared to sacrifice the heritage and distinct identities of two very proud and respected rural communities.

That is but one example, and I am sure that Members can find similar examples in their own areas. I support the motion, and, similar to Members on the opposite Benches, I request that it is put on hold until the Assembly is up and meeting properly. Only then can Members make a decision. That decision should not be made for them by outsiders. As the song said:

“For the stranger came and tried to teach us their way”.

Members know what is best for this area.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 3:30 am, 5th December 2006

I wish to declare that I am a member of Ards Borough Council and have been for 22 years. It is one of the Province’s premier boroughs, and I am happy to be a member of its council.

Strenfird is aa’ plase o’ ooutstaunin beuty. Aa’ plase wi’ aai guid vebrant histry. An tha airdes an its blaiwicks celebrait this yeer its fivour hunner yeer in stiel. Tha airdes is woarked herd tae let tha woarl ken aboot oor pride inoor ain histry. Aboot tha beuty an majesty o’ tha loch: aboot tha cherm o’ oor wee hamelets an villages.

Alang tha coast o’ tha loch an oor pride in haein gerdens that hae bin gein tha staunin as aa woarl heritage sieht.

Am no jist blawin aboot tha mony mony attractions that my borough hiss tae oafer at oany tiem avaw its “aw yeer roon”.

Thees things er sae importan tae tha fowk that leev an woark oan its beutifil shoars. Hooiver pit fort theese facts tae sumyin fae Dundonald or Carryduff an intrest an pride will decrease as they tauk aboot pride in ther district, an whut wud seem laek freenly rivalry in tha normal wae o’ things.

In tha gein oot an sharein o’ funs is foar mare seryus

An tha facts er glaring oot tae see.

If Castlerea an Nor Doon an tha Hael O’ Doon er tae be brocht tha tither. We in Airdes wull loas an impeartin pert in oor ability tae pit fort oor identity.

An whilst we no fer apert accoardin tae tha geography wi dundonald an tha laek. Oor mannerisms an oor style er nae wae tha saem. If it gauns aheed an thees councils er aw jining up. It caun oanly caus annoyance.

As Pro. Carmichael of the Ulster University saes, local givernment hiss’ tae be jist that. Local if it is tae keep oany sense o’ bein accountable tae local needs. By this rekining tha new sivin super councils er aa travesty an mutilation o’ guid local giverment.

Strangford is an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is a place with a vibrant history that celebrated its four-hundredth year in style. Ards Borough Council has strived to let the world know about its pride in local history, about its pride in the sheer beauty and majesty of the lough, about the charm of the small villages along the peninsula and about its pride in having gardens that have been nominated as world heritage sites. I am not merely blowing about the many attractions that my borough has to offer at any time of year — those attractions are particular to the Strangford area and are vastly important to the people who live on the lough’s beautiful shores. However, if those facts are relayed to someone from, for example, Dundonald or Carryduff, that pride will be somewhat dissipated as those people relate their pride in their districts. What may seem normally like friendly rivalry will be more serious in the context of the allocation of funds. The facts are stark.

Prof Paul Carmichael of the University of Ulster said:

“local government must be genuinely local if the system overall is to retain a sense of being responsive to local needs. By this reckoning, the new seven ‘super councils’ are a travesty of genuine local government.”

It is at best unlikely and at worst impossible that a city council could understand the needs of a rural area and vice versa. The system devised simply does not take into account the sense of affinity that is needed to ensure a successful local government regime. One need only sit in on any council meeting to see the diversity of opinions with regard to allocations of funding. We have all experienced that and can imagine the difficulties that the proposed amalgamations would cause.

Communities are being thrown together geographic-ally, as the areas have little in common to link them. Given that no names could be found to unify the districts — as the Local Government Boundary Commissioner, Dick Mackenzie, admitted — it is abundantly clear that the seven-council model suffers from a complete lack of local identity.

Members may have read a recent ‘Belfast Telegraph’ questionnaire, which invited readers to suggest names for the seven new councils. One of the more amusing responses was that they should be named after the Seven Dwarfs because the Seven Dwarfs have as much affinity with the seven proposed council areas as anybody else.

There is no question that a more streamlined system of local government is needed in Northern Ireland. However, the seven-council model is clearly not the best way forward, and should not be taken beyond the consultation process. The fact that four of the five main parties agree that it is not the best way forward for the Province is proof of that.

The vast majority of elected representatives are opposed to the seven-council proposal. A majority of the 1,400 people surveyed across the Province by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) came out strongly in favour of an 11- or 15-council system, as opposed to the 113 people who responded to the further consultation document on the seven-council model. Why is that the case? The reason is that there is a widespread and legitimate fear, not only with regard to the loss of local identity, but with regard to the loss of local accountability. A local representative would have little say in the outcome of council meetings because 250,000 voices would have to be represented in each council area. Compare that with Scotland, where the quota is 100,000 for each council. In Wales, to which the Secretary of State is keen to compare us, only 1,500 votes are required to achieve election to a council. However, 5,500 votes would be required to gain a seat on one of the seven super-councils.

People in the fishing village of Portavogie can have quite legitimate fears that their needs will be overlooked in favour of the needs of those living in Dundonald on the outskirts of Belfast. If Northern Ireland were to be divided into 11 council areas, that would give added scope for true power sharing, genuine local democracy and lower-level accountability. The seven super-councils would be too remote and would not be sufficiently representative of local communities.

The loss of accountability and local identity would be a major problem. The seven-council model would impose sectarian divides and split the Province into the nationalist west and the so-called unionist east, with Belfast in the middle, pulled between the two. It is surprising that a Government that have urged us to break down dividing walls, to integrate more fully and to pull down the barriers between us are now, to all intents and purposes, formalising those very divisions.

The formation of seven super-councils will polarise political opinions and agendas, whereas the 11-council option would diminish somewhat the impact of the North/South and east-west divide. If we are to believe that the way forward is by living in peace together — and I hope that that is the aspiration of many, if not all, in this Chamber — this polarisation is a poor substitute and a very bad idea.

What is it hoped to achieve by that kind of segregation, other than to throw a bone to Sinn Féin? That party has the greatest desire to segregate and to polarise in the hope of steering the population towards its agenda. The intention to strengthen segregation goes against every-thing that Government urge us to achieve here and raises serious questions about what is behind this move and about what the Government have in store for us.

We should consider the impact on health and social services, and the education boards. In those areas, identity will also be lost, so we must look at the whole picture to see how it might develop.

The Assembly should insist that the Secretary of State do away with the implementation of the seven-super-council arrangement and have the 11-council model in its place. The Assembly must back that proposal because it represents the views of the majority of the people in the Province.

The wishes and ultimate well-being of the electorate are paramount: research conducted by the University of Ulster, and the wishes of my constituents, state that the majority of people want more than seven councils — they want 11 councils. The ultimate well-being of our people lies in the Assembly’s ability to carry out a full needs assessment of the boroughs and con-sequently to implement the best possible solution.

Lord Rooker, the Minister with responsibility for the review of public administration, set out the criteria for the creation of the super-councils. He stated:

“local government must … be at the heart of local services, locally delivered, operating at a size and scale that will allow a council to stretch itself in terms of the services it delivers now and into the future.”

The criteria are worthwhile, but if the seven-council plan is implemented, it will not fulfil them, no matter what way one looks at it. It is up to the Assembly and its Members to find a satisfactory solution. Most — if not all — people think that the solution is the 11-council plan, which would streamline vastly without losing identity and accountability.

The problem must be solved at a local level and not by those who have a different idea of what is needed by the people of Northern Ireland. Members must insist that they are given the power to carry out what they have been elected to do. It is the wish of the majority of elected representatives and of the people of the Province. I urge everyone to support the motion.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I declare an interest as a member of Carrickfergus Borough Council, Carrickfergus Community Safety Partnership and Carrickfergus District Policing Partnership.

I too have serious concerns about the proposed seven-council model and the dangers that will result from a so-called local government that is large, impersonal and remote. Like other Members, I agree that the term “local” will be questionable in the proposed new super-councils.

It is good that additional responsibilities will be returned to councils from quangos and other bodies. However, will the decisions that the proposed new super-councils take be seen to be local and accountable to ratepayers? The proposed new councils will be very distant.

During the troubles, local government was often the only source of local democratic accountability. It was a source of community stability, where local people could work together in the community’s general interest in order to improve roads, health services and housing. That scenario should not be put at risk. The dangers of remoteness are evident in my constituency of East Antrim, which comprises Larne Borough Council, Carrickfergus Borough Council and some wards of Newtownabbey Borough Council. The proposed seven-council model would result in the constituency being split, with some councils being absorbed into North East and others into Inner East.

The proposal to reduce 26 local councils to seven is a dramatic, radical and risky shake-up. A sense of local identity will be lost, and the changes will affect many aspects of local communities. Some local newspapers may even be at risk because much of the coverage in such papers emanates from local councils. If local councils cover a huge geographical area, there would be relatively little to report in the ‘Larne Times’, ‘Larne Advertiser’, ‘Larne Gazette’, ‘Newtownabbey Times’, ‘Carrick Times’ or ‘Carrickfergus Advertiser’. The collective effect will be that local cohesion will be put at risk.

The proposed boundary changes, and how they affect my area, are particularly unacceptable. Larne Borough Council is to join Ballymena Borough Council, Ballymoney Borough Council, Moyle District Council and Coleraine Borough Council.

Larne is the gateway port for rural Northern Ireland, the premier rural port. It naturally gravitates towards Belfast and the main transport corridor along the A8, and along the east Antrim railway line towards Carrickfergus and Belfast. The natural community linkages are towards Ballyclare, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey. I am a member of Raloo Presbyterian Church in the Larne borough. It is part of the Carrickfergus Presbytery. I am also an officer in the East Antrim Battalion of the Boys’ Brigade, in the Larne area. The natural community linkages point, not towards Ballymena or Coleraine; but to the east Antrim area. The proposal is a nonsense. It goes against the grain. Why were such local aspects not taken into consideration when making these proposals?

Let us turn to Inner East Local Government District: Carrickfergus, Newtownabbey, Antrim and Lisburn. From Whitehead in County Antrim to Dromore in County Down.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I beg your pardon, I meant to say Dromara. What is the connection between Whitehead and Dromara? I suggest that there is none. I have no wish to offend colleagues from Lisburn City Council, but I perceive that their area gravitates towards the Lagan Valley corridor. They travel the M1 to Belfast, not the M2. Inner East Local Government District — the “Big Banana” or the “Banana Republic”, as others have referred to it — appears to consist of the bits left over after the rest of Northern Ireland has been divided up. That is the only force binding together the disparate parts of Inner East. That is no basis on which to form a new council area. Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey have natural community linkages, and these could easily be respected in a 15-council model of local government for Northern Ireland. I suggest that it will not be possible to reflect local community concerns in the proposed seven-council model.

Much more than local councils are affected however. Others have mentioned local strategy partnerships: community safety partnerships and district policing partnerships. It is doubtful whether local strategy partnerships will continue beyond implementation of the review of public administration. The structures of community safety partnerships and district policing partnerships appear to be amalgamating as, I believe, they should do. Will four council areas, each with three different partnerships, end up as one new strategic partnership, or district policing partnership, covering that entire area, with perhaps one or two members representing each council area? If that is the plan, there is a huge risk of losing the skills and cohesion that have developed in existing partnerships. Such a plan would go too far, cover much too wide an area and allow little opportunity for community involvement.

The motion expresses serious concerns about the dangers of the centralisation of jobs and services. When the Government identify savings as a result of the review of public administration, they mean savings from a reduction in the number of jobs. It is right to reduce costs for ratepayers by becoming more efficient. However, there is a need for balance. The greater the centralisation and efficiency, the greater the remoteness from the centre in peripheral areas. People will have to travel further to lobby a council committee or a council officer. Will those from Whitehead have to travel to Lisburn or Antrim to speak to the appropriate council officer or committee? Will those from Islandmagee have to travel to Ballymena or even to Coleraine — some sixty miles away — for the same purpose? The geography is wrong.

I must respond to derogatory remarks made about a part of my constituency. Alex Maskey referred to Larne. He is patently unaware of the “team Larne” approach adopted by Larne Borough Council. He seems unaware that at present Larne has an SDLP mayor or that it used to have an SDLP Deputy Mayor — within a borough that has only two nationalist representatives on a 15-member council. Under the new proposals, it is most unlikely that a nationalist in the proposed North East Local Government Distirct area could be elected mayor of such a large district. Only through local interests and co-operation have members of the Larne Borough Council seen fit to share the civic positions. That sense of identity and responsibility may easily be lost when formulae are introduced.

I also respond to accusations made by DUP representatives with respect to water charges and rates.

The DUP Minister responsible for water in the Northern Ireland Assembly must have been aware of departmental options, yet he did not disclose any of the plans that were in the drawers in his Department. The DUP promised in its election campaign to stop water charges and to reduce rates. It has been the leading unionist party for over three years now, and in that time rates have increased not by 9%, but by 19%, and water charges are likely to be introduced. All that has occurred on the DUP’s watch. It cannot blame anyone else.

The seven-council model is wrong — wrong geographically, for service accessibility, for jobs and for community cohesion. Like my colleague Sam Gardiner, I call on the Secretary of State to shelve the seven-council plan. He would not introduce such a plan in Wales were he faced with such an obvious lack of community support there. If he did he would probably not be re-elected, but, of course, he is unaccountable in Northern Ireland. Given the lack of community support, the seven super-councils should not be introduced here. I support the motion and I hope that all will join us, except for those who have some self-interest in generating further sectarian division in Northern Ireland.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I call Mrs Dolores Kelly.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; it is good to see you here. [Laughter.]

(Madam Speaker in the Chair)

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Usurped once again. [Laughter.]

I wish to declare that I am a member of Craigavon Borough Council. I welcome the end of the dual mandate, and am hopeful that I will also see the end of the triple mandate.

In her maiden speech, Mrs O’Rawe referred to the representation of women in political life. I wish to draw her attention to a report, ‘Women and the Review of Public Administration’, published in September 2005 by Queen’s University. That report found that concerns exist that the RPA could further reduce the opportunities for women’s participation in public life as a result of the reduction in the number of councils and boards.

Perhaps the Member might be enlightened by the statistics contained therein, and consequently review her position on the seven-council model. After all, I do not believe that her constituents in South Armagh, or indeed those of her colleagues in South Down, will relish being dragged all the way up to Craigavon, or vice versa.

The reform of public administration is the most far-reaching reform of the system of public administration in Northern Ireland for a generation. It has enormous consequences for the way that public services such as health and education are delivered, and it poses new challenges for local government.

Increasingly in Western democracies there is a problem with reduced levels of involvement and participation by citizens in public life. One example is the decline in voter turnout in recent years; another is the fall of 82,000 in the number of voters listed on the Northern Ireland electoral register that was published last week.

In its comments on the RPA proposals, NILGA said that democratic processes should be valued, nurtured and supported in a way that is closely connected to the local community. People living on the shores of Lough Neagh and in the fishing port of Annalong have little in common, but under the seven-council model both areas will be part of the new super-council currently known as South Local Government District.

My party colleagues have outlined many of the SDLP’s concerns about the model of local government imposed by this British direct rule Minister. I wish to deal primarily with the consequences for rural areas. The RPA has determined that rural development delivery will move to local government, and policy will rest with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The timing of the transfer of functions will significantly influence who delivers the next round of rural development

It is, however, highly debatable whether local government will be ready to deliver the new programme in January 2007. I do not believe that it will be ready. On what evidence, therefore, has Sinn Féin supported the British Government’s argument for the seven-super-council model, and what protections have rural communities been guaranteed? Has the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) been appointed as rural champion? I would think not considering its silence on PPS 14. There was not even a whimper from DARD on a planning policy that will mean no more housing in the open countryside and the effect that that will have on schools, rural businesses, post offices, and so forth.

There is no evidence that Government Departments have rural proofed their policies. After 15 years of rural development in Northern Ireland, we still do not have any legislative base or a rural White Paper. Ideally, a rural White Paper would capture the vision and encourage a common understanding of the value of rural areas as an asset to the region. A White Paper would also set out the principles that ensure the equitable and sensitive provision of services and infrastructure to support and sustain rural areas. I reiterate the SDLP’s call for a rural White Paper.

The option 7C model has been accepted by Sinn Féin without guarantees for the large rural areas. Ms Gildernew made much about rural communities and made many misleading comments about the SDLP and INTERREG IIIA in particular. Sinn Féin was caught on the hop by PPS 14, and some of its members even supported it at the outset. It is being caught out again in its support for British direct-rule Ministers in the option 7C model.

Perhaps Ms Gildernew’s support for the option 7C model has more to do with sparing her blushes over the debate on which new hospital to support — one in Omagh or one in Enniskillen. First, she supports one hospital, then she supports the other. Members of Sinn Féin, the great negotiators, are more renowned, as the history books will show, for negotiating for themselves on such issues as on-the-runs (OTRs) and community restorative justice rather than for the interests of the wider community, and certainly not for the rural community. I support the motion.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I declare membership of Cookstown District Council. After much alleged deliberation, the Govern-ment and their review of public administration team came up with seven so-called super-councils. Some people call them super-councils, and they can also be called sub-regional councils, but they can never be called local councils. In fact, they cannot be named at all, such is their lack of identity and sense of place or locality as is obvious in my council — an area stretching from Ballyronan on the shores of Lough Neagh in south Derry to Belleek on the Fermanagh border.

A sense of place and identity remains crucial to local government. People have an affinity with and a sense of belonging to their district. One may say that that connection is local or parochial, but it is enriching since that sense of belonging creates a bond with local government as councillors try to deliver public services in a defined locality.

More importantly, local, regional and national governments throughout the world welcome engage-ment with and participation in local democracy. The lack of engagement with one’s Government and the loss of feeling of belonging and affinity with them has led to particularly low electoral turnouts in western democracies. That is because councils are viewed as not belonging to the people, and their perceived remoteness, aloofness, distance and lack of identity are widely regarded as being the source of that disenchant-ment. However, the British Government introduce remote, aloof and distant models for so-called local government here. They do not learn.

I have looked at some other European models. Norway, with a population of 4·6 million, has two tiers of local government — nineteen county authorities and 431 municipalities. It is proud of its local government, and it is presently devising measures to enhance equality and equity. Norway’s aim is to guide local citizens’ participation in local public life and formal decision-making processes.

France, with a population of 58·5 million, has almost 37,000 communes, each with a mayor and a municipal council. Switzerland, with a population of 7·25 million people, has 26 cantons subdivided into districts, with 2,900 municipalities in total. There are other models, but those municipalities, cantons and districts have been developed over time for a reason: to enable participation; to respect diversity; and to help to prevent overwhelming domination by one community or identity over another. Those countries have tried to learn from the brutal excesses and worst elements of European history. The lesson is: accommodate, not dominate. We could learn their lessons of equality and respect for diversity. Here, however, the British Government introduce their proposals to Balkanise the North and, rubber-stamped by Provisional Sinn Féin, to create super-DUP-councils east of the Bann.

There will be economic consequences for that plan. We all know that we rely heavily on public-sector employment. People employed at all levels in local councils, education and library boards and the Health Service now face an uncertain employment future, courtesy of the review of public administration.

It is a setback for local government, a road map for future division, a body blow for local-district town economies due to job loses. How can anyone in Government, in the RPA team or in Sinn Féin be so detached from the lives of ordinary people and blind to the consequences of these proposals as to advocate the present recommendations as a way forward?

Tacaim le rún mo pháirti. I support my party’s motion. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker 4:00 am, 5th December 2006

The Question is — Sorry, that was wishful thinking on my part.

I call Mr John O’Dowd to make the winding-up speech on the amendment. My apologies, Mr O’Dowd.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Your wishful thinking was that I was not going to speak.

Today’s debate, in a sense, has been very enlightening. Actually, it has been almost the opposite of that. It has shone much light on the debate on the RPA, and it has highlighted one important factor. All the parties, apart from Sinn Féin, are opposed to option 7C, but they cannot tell us which option they prefer, and why. Some say that they are in favour of 11 councils, some say they favour 15 councils, and others do not know how many they favour. In fact, one Member, who sits on Down District Council, was totally opposed to the RPA. The Member’s contribution was about saving Down District Council. Perhaps it was about saving her council seat. The latter may be of more importance to her.

I speak in favour of our amendment, but, like many other Members, I am also a councillor — I sit on Craigavon Borough Council. The number of councillors who have spoken here today is the best argument that I have heard for ending the dual mandate. I shall return to that point.

Sinn Féin did not adopt the British Government’s proposal. It was long thought out and debated by the party, but, more importantly, it was the product of consultation and thorough investigation by an independent research team. The party examined the proposal and came to its conclusion after looking at equality measures, and after ensuring that there would be a fairer rates base, no domination by any section of society and fair play for everybody. That was how we arrived at the option 7C model. However, it appears that many parties decided on the number of councils and then decided what argument they would use to arrive at that number. Few of today’s contributions have shown why there should be 11 councils, 15 councils, or whatever.

They have not come to that conclusion. Some Members appear to oppose the option 7C model simply because Sinn Féin supports it, so limited is the political debate in their parties.

The DUP, in particular, says that it wants a reduction in the number of civil servants; it wants civil servants sacked in their hundreds, if not thousands. I note that one Member said yesterday that he wants thousands of civil servants to be sacked. The DUP also wants a reduction in the number of Government Departments, but not in the number of council seats. That party’s attitude is one of, “don’t touch our councils; they are ours.”

The DUP says that it wants a reduction in the number of MLAs. Many prophecies were made in the Chamber yesterday, and I will make another: if the debate on reducing the number of MLAs ever reaches this Chamber, I predict that the Members opposite will vote against it, because it will go back to the old argument of, “save our seats, no matter what else happens”. [Interruption.]

If I will be an old hand by the time we are in Government, you will be a lot older than me, I can assure you.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Please address your remarks through the Chair.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

In proposing the motion, Mr Tommy Gallagher said that the option 7C model would result in trapped minorities, but the 15-council model that some SDLP members support will also result in trapped minorities. The difference with Sinn Féin is that we have been pushing and lobbying very hard to ensure that power sharing and equality exists on those councils. I am not talking about token power sharing; I am not talking about the token taig elevated to the position of mayor or deputy mayor to ensure that a Shinner does not get it. I am talking about all parties being included and all the voices on a council being heard.

However, the SDLP says that no model in the world will protect any minority. Is the SDLP saying that the 15-council model that it espouses will not protect minorities because no model in the world can do that? Sinn Féin is saying that there is a model. [Interruption.]

Tommy, I paraphrased what you said, and you can check the Hansard report afterwards. I believe that a model does exist, and that, collectively, we, as political parties, can come up with a model that will protect the minority voices within a council, and outside it.

The SDLP needs to ask itself about the unholy alliance that is has formed with the UUP and DUP. If we end up with 11 or 15 councils, that would satisfy the SDLP. However, the SDLP has not asked this question: are the DUP and the UUP prepared to share power? The record shows that they are not. Those records of those parties on power sharing on councils are absolutely disgraceful.

The new unholy alliance, based on opposition to the option 7C model, escapes the fundamental facts. What lies behind that alliance? Removing the numbers element from the equation, if the councils do not serve all the people and if all the voices on councils are not heard and respected, it will be a disaster waiting to happen.

The loss of local identity and local voices has been discussed. What is the alternative to that? No Member has said that the 15-council model should have such-and-such — Sinn Féin has. Sinn Féin has said that the option 7C model should have local, area-based committees, made up of elected representatives. Such committees would act as mini civic forums, ensuring that the voices of local people, local minorities and local ethnic minorities can be heard, and would provide a forum where local decisions can be taken and local issues dealt with.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Protestants in Newry?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Yes; Protestants in Newry. That is exactly where a local, area-based committee would work. We have come up with proposals on that.

The debate on the names of the councils is an absolute and complete load of nonsense. If a 15-council model were adopted, preliminary names would still be required. At the end of the day, I do not care if the new councils are called one, two, three, four, five, six and seven; it is the services that councils provide that is important to me. More importantly, the people who pay rates to those councils do not care what they are called. They want to ensure that those councils provide proper services to communities and individuals. The debate on the names of the councils is somewhat premature, and also unnecessary.

I would like to respond to Cllr Kelly’s remarks about rural communities. She said that Sinn Féin is not interested in rural communities. It is strange, then, that in the two largest rural communities west of the Bann, people go out and vote for a Sinn Féin MP. They also send back a majority of Sinn Féin councillors and MLAs. The people in those rural communities must believe that we have an interest in them.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

No, thank you.

The Member for Upper Bann, Mrs Kelly, is confused. Sinn Féin has not signed up to all of the RPA. We are still in negotiations about the 7C model. We are certainly still negotiating about the quangos that surround all the issues within the RPA. The SDLP may have stopped negotiating, going into the political lobbying bodies, etc; Sinn Féin has not. Our party is in there negotiating the best possible deal for the whole community, including protection for rural communities.

I can put Mrs Kelly’s mind at ease, if she has a couple of hours to spare — although it might take longer. The Member believes that Sinn Féin did not respond to PPS 14. Our response was very effective. She has the opportunity to read it, although she will need a few hours as it is very detailed. In fact, the next time I see her I will give her a copy.

Some of the myths are going to have to be got rid of here. The other parties are telling us that they need local voices, local communities. However, in the political panel’s discussions about other sectors being involved, all the parties other than Sinn Féin opposed community involvement. They wanted it to be exclusively for councillors. How, then, are they looking for local voices?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Elect them.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The Member is telling us that he wants local voices to be heard.

In conclusion, in these six hours of debate I have heard from the Benches opposite plenty of reasons for not wanting model 7C. I have heard little as to any alternative. What we have witnessed today is turkeys voting against Christmas.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Standing Order 11(g) refers to Members persisting in irrelevance. I am questioning the relevance of the Member’s concluding remarks to his proposed amendment, which affirms his support for a review of public administration that he himself admits they have not finished negotiating on.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. A review is a review; it does not mean an outcome.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

Mr Hussey, the speech has been concluded. It would be nice if we all took your advice.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

If I could say — [Interruption.]

First of all, I declare that for my sins I am a member of Belfast City Council and have been for 21 years. We have had a wide-ranging, interesting and worthwhile debate. I do not think that anyone in the House rejects the notion of a thorough review of local government, and no one has rejected the suggestion that there should be a serious reduction in the number of local councils.

Of course, there is an irony about the debate, in that the only party that has supported the British Govern-ment’s conclusions in relation to local government has been Sinn Féin. Not only that, but Sinn Féin has stub-bornly persisted in defending the British Government’s conclusions. Perhaps it is some form of political infection that the party has picked up on its many trips to Downing Street. Sinn Féin’s negotiators have spent more hours in Downing Street than the average Cabinet Minister.

Mr O’Dowd claimed that Sinn Féin put forward and supported the seven-council model and that it solidly resisted anything other than that model. However, Sinn Féin councillors on Fermanagh District Council supported the 15-council model. Perhaps Mr O’Dowd should go to Fermanagh and talk to his own councillors to get their genuine views. Those councillors rejected the seven-council model; they rejected the arguments emanating from Connolly House that thou shalt prefer the seven-council model and thou shalt obey Connolly House, no matter if you feel that people have lost their sense of place or think that the RPA conclusions on coterminosity are a nonsense.

The RPA proposes four health and social services councils and seven health commissioning groups, so there is no coterminosity. At the outset, we were told that the principle of coterminosity constituted the very essence of the review of public administration. The Government have now abandoned that idea. Why? They have abandoned coterminosity for the sake of their own centralised administrative convenience, not for the people on the ground — council workers, councillors and ordinary citizens.

Sinn Féin blindly accepts that the distribution of rates throughout Northern Ireland will be equitable and that every council will receive the same support and be able to generate the same funds that Belfast does with its population of some 300,000 people. Although those facts are patently unsubstantiated by the Government, Sinn Féin is prepared to accept them as an act of faith. What kind of political evaluation of an important issue is that? This issue will affect ordinary ratepayers and all citizens of rural areas and rural towns.

People want equity and fairness, and they want the Government to prove that the arrangements that they are preparing to impose are fair and equitable. In spite of discussions, negotiations and representations by all the parties, the Government have refused to allow local politicians to determine this issue.

There is no reason why Sinn Féin Members could not have stood up today and objected to the first part of the motion but accepted the second part, which states that the Assembly should decide the future arrange-ments, but no: Sinn Féin does not want the Assembly to make that decision. It is opposed to both parts of the motion. During today’s debate, which has lasted more than four hours, Sinn Féin has never said that it is prepared to allow the local Assembly to decide this important issue.

The reason for that is that Sinn Féin is determined to establish power bases throughout Northern Ireland that it hopes to control. This is about power; it is not about equity or a sense of identity for local people, but simply Sinn Féin’s selfish interest in using power for party political advantage. There is no other explanation.

Sinn Féin talks about safeguards. Alex Maskey said that, in all seven new council areas, the minority community would not be less than 25%. That is absolute nonsense — check the figures.

In reality, minorities will be disadvantaged in situations in which there are large majorities, whether Catholic or Protestant, unionist or nationalist. That is unfortunate, but it is an obvious consequence of the way in which these arrangements have been determined.

Everybody wants safeguards to be included. The safeguards that we want are the same ones that everybody else wants. However, stating that everybody wants safeguards is not an argument; it does not support the seven-, 15- or 26-council models. The reality is that we have a new dispensation in which there will have to be power sharing and in which safeguards for minorities will have to be included.

Sinn Féin’s argument, therefore, is spurious. In fact, it is a red herring that does not address the central issue of the number of councils that should exist. The SDLP wants to have up to 15 councils in order to dilute the sectarianisation of the new councils. If there are seven councils, the minority/majority differential will be seen in stark relief. That is unacceptable. If we have 15 councils or so, we will dilute the interface between nationalist and unionist. That is a very important element in determining a new dispensation for local government.

People will listen carefully to today’s arguments, and they will be convinced that the argument for seven councils is wrong on all scores. Having seven councils will do nothing to advance the interests of the ordinary man and woman in the street. It will not assist us in any way in the creation of more efficient services, and it will diminish and destroy the sense of belonging and place that is important to the people of Northern Ireland.

Today’s debate has been a good argument, but it is important for all of us to reflect on what has been said. The final decision on this issue must be referred to the new Assembly, in which it is to be hoped that all of us will participate. In that Assembly we can achieve a solid, healthy political consensus — not an unholy alliance — that the entire community can finally support.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 16; Noes 44.

Ayes

Francis Brolly, Willie Clarke, Geraldine Dougan, Davy Hyland, Alex Maskey, Fra McCann, Raymond McCartney, Barry McElduff, Philip McGuigan, Conor Murphy, John O’Dowd, Pat O’Rawe, Tom O’Reilly, Sue Ramsey, Caitriona Ruane, Kathy Stanton.

Tellers for the Ayes: Barry McElduff and Conor Murphy

Noes

Billy Armstrong, Alex Attwood, Roy Beggs, Paul Berry, Mary Bradley, P J Bradley, Thomas Burns, Wilson Clyde, Fred Cobain, Michael Copeland, Robert Coulter, Leslie Cree, John Dallat, Diane Dodds, Mark Durkan, Alex Easton, Reg Empey, David Ford, Arlene Foster, Tommy Gallagher, Samuel Gardiner, William Hay, Derek Hussey, Dolores Kelly, Danny Kennedy, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Nelson McCausland, David McClarty, Alasdair McDonnell, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Patsy McGlone, Stephen Moutray, Sean Neeson, Robin Newton, Edwin Poots, Margaret Ritchie, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, Jim Shannon, Mervyn Storey, Peter Weir, Jim Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Billy Armstrong and Thomas Burns

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly expresses serious concern about the potential of a seven council model to centralise services, remove jobs and resources from many areas and to underpin sectarianism and community division; and further calls on the Secretary of State to shelve present plans for super councils and allow the decision on future council arrangements to be taken by a restored Northern Ireland Assembly.

Adjourned at 4.39 pm.