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With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 6 and 12 together. In December 2008, following a highly critical independent review of the Road Safety Council’s performance, I wrote to it to confirm that, from 1 April 2009, funding would be directed away from central administration into the front-line road safety activities of local communities.
I also met representatives of the Road Safety Council on 27 February. At that meeting, the Road Safety Council pressed me to reverse my decision to withdraw the core funding, and I made it clear that my decision would stand.
It is too early to say what impact the change to direct funding has had on local road safety committees, apart from the fact that they report directly to the Department instead of to the Road Safety Council. However, I have made it clear that the action is not directed towards the local committees; indeed, they should benefit from it. In the face of critical reports, I had to make a decision about whether we wanted to keep pumping tens of thousands of pounds into a body that was administering as much money as it was costing to run.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Is there a danger that road safety committees — I declare an interest, as I am a member of one — which are largely made up of enthusiastic volunteers, will simply be mowed down by the juggernaut that is central government bureaucracy when what they actually need is an arms-length funding body to deal with their queries?
I could take that criticism if there was any indication that that was the case. Let us be clear that £160,000 was available every year in the Department for road safety. That money was channelled through the Road Safety Council. In the last four years, that money was never fully drawn down. In some years, a quarter of it was never used. The requests for that funding came and were to come through the Road Safety Council. If the local committees depended on the Road Safety Council to ensure that funding was available to them, it did not do a very good job, even though about half of the money was spent on administrative costs.
One of the points that I made very clear to officials before I made the decision was that I did not want to see one expensive bureaucracy replaced with another or gobbledegook forms that people could not understand. The form that is sent to the committees has two pages, one of which has four columns of questions about what the applicants want to do, how many people will attend, what objectives they hope to achieve, and how it fits in with the strategy. In case even that is too much for the groups, there are pointers as to what might be put in each of the columns. Therefore, to describe it as being run over by the juggernaut of central government bureaucracy is to put it a bit strongly. We have sought to make the system as good as it can be.
It disappoints me that, despite the money being available, some of the committees were encouraged not to apply for it. Thankfully, 10 committees have now applied, and I have extended the normal application period so that those that have not applied still have the opportunity to do so.
There is anger and frustration in the voluntary community sector, which is at the coalface in dealing with and advocating on road safety measures, such as cycling proficiency programmes in schools. The Minister was cherry-picking his criticism. One independent review stated very clearly that the Road Safety Council’s secretariat was pivotal to the organisation and the capacity-building of the volunteers.
I have made the position clear on a number of occasions. It is significant that the issue has come to me from the Committee for the Environment and through letters and representations from individual committees.
Reports were produced in 1987, 2002 and 2008 that were damning of some aspects of the Road Safety Council. It is significant that the only positive view of the Road Safety Council in the most recent report was that it had good political connections. The accuracy of that has been borne out by the fact that I am inundated with letters from all parties about the Road Safety Council.
In the most recent report, 36 points were made, of which only one was supportive of the Road Safety Council. I could not have ignored that, and I do not understand what Pat Ramsey is saying about the voluntary sector being up in arms. The local road safety committees will have access to funding, which previously was shared between them and the Road Safety Council and half of which went towards administration costs.
The local road safety committees will have direct access to funding through completion of the simple form that I described to the Member for East Belfast Naomi Long. I hope that, rather than walk away from the good work that many of the committees have done in local areas, they will take the opportunity to apply for funding and strengthen the work that has been done. In fact, they could receive substantially more than they received previously, but that will depend on the programmes that they put forward. It is important that the committees apply for funds and do not refuse to play simply because the Road Safety Council is no longer there to hold their hands — albeit hand-holding that was seemingly not done effectively.
The Road Safety Council was a conduit through which a lot of the Department of the Environment’s money went to the road safety committees at local level. It was also supposed to be a strategic body that helped to develop road safety activities at local level. All of the reports stated that it was not fulfilling that function. That was not a one-off observation that came out of the blue; it was built on the 1997 and 2002 reports, which showed no change, and the most recent report in 2008. I could not ignore that.
The work of the road safety committees is done at local level. They will continue to receive financial support and any other support that they need from my Department, and that financial support will be easily accessed.