Local Government Bill: Second Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 1st October 2013.

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Debate resumed on motion:

That the Second Stage of the Local Government Bill [NIA 28/11-15] be agreed. — [Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment).]

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

When we stopped, I was nearly finished but just not quite.  Therefore, I will not detain the House too long.  However, there are a couple of issues about the Bill that I would like to bring to the House's attention. 

There are not many, no matter what form of society or walk of life they are in, who like change.  Somehow, we do not adapt to change very quickly; or at least, at the beginning, we resist it.  I think that one of the biggest challenges, or one of the great concerns, for the new administrations when they come into place — others may have touched on it, but I cannot recall who it was — will be the potential disappearance of localism.  The existing structures were formed under the Macrory report in 1972 and 1973.  When those reforms came into place, there was little lead-in time; it was one way today, and it seemed to be that the new system just appeared and everybody got on with it.  However, that is not proposed in this Bill.  There will be a time for everybody to get acclimatised, as it were, to the new system.  Not everybody fully understands that.  Indeed, a lot of people — I would be one of them — feel that it is hardly necessary either, but that is by the way.  Maybe it is easy for me to say that since I will not be part of it, but then I came in from the cold to the new system and it was not part of anything. 

In their contributions, Anna Lo and Dolores Kelly made great play of the fact that they felt that their parties were, at times, discriminated against and that they did not get their fair share of mayoral positions.  Well, let us —

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I will in a second, after I tell you my story. [Laughter.] Does it take them as long to get round to sharing in Mr McCarthy's council as it does in Dungannon?  I tell you, it took 36 years for the DUP, which had representation for all those years in the council, to get its shared bit.  I do not know whether your council moves as quickly or as slowly as that, but I did say that I would give way, and I will.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

Lord Morrow, I am grateful to you for giving way.  I was not going to contribute, but I was listening.  How would you consider it if a member served on a council for, in my case, 28 years and had applied for a position of deputy mayor and mayor on eight occasions and was never given that opportunity?  Yet, I can remember quite clearly one occasion when a DUP man came in following an election and was elected deputy mayor after one year.  Do you not think that what is proposed today will eradicate that for the future?  I will not be part of it, and you will not be part of it, but at least we will be making progress.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

You did not do so badly at 28 years.  As I said, it took me 36 years to get Dungannon council round to the way that maybe others should be given consideration.  If it takes 36 years to make it happen in Dungannon, and it took 28 — I do not think that the Alliance was held out of post for 28 years in your council.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Well now, here we go, you see.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

I thank the Member for giving way.  Does he agree with me that sometimes when we are talking about these issues a perception emerges, particularly from those who are of a nationalist disposition serving on unionist-controlled councils, that they have, in some way, been frozen out for a long time, and they are looking for some comfort that that will not happen again?  This is a two-way street.  This morning, Mrs Kelly referred to the Londonderry/Strabane area, where Sinn Féin has taken both the chairman and vice-chairman positions on the transition committee.  In addition, if there is a situation in which unionists are 20% of the voters but get 10% of the posts on the transition committee, it is a two-way process.  People should not have the perception that it is nationalists who have been disadvantaged from the 1970s until now and that they are looking for a nirvana or promised land.  It is a two-way process.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I thank the Member for that point.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member very much for giving way.  I am sure that he and Mr Campbell will join me in congratulating Derry City Council for its efforts over the years to involve unionists.  Over a term, there are four mayors and four deputy mayors in Derry.  Unionists get one mayor and three deputy mayors over the four years, which equates to 50% of the posts.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I think that —

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

I cannot let that intervention go.  I do not know how to describe it, but it is not accurate.  We have to go back only to the mid-1980s, and we all know what happened then when there was a nationalist-controlled council headed by the SDLP.  It took decisions that not only marginalised unionists but isolated them for decades.  That cannot be covered by saying, "We let you have a mayor the odd year."

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Order.  I am sure that Members will agree that we really need to get back to the Bill.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Mr Deputy Speaker, you pre-empted what I was going to say, which is very similar.  Everybody has had the opportunity to air their grievances and points of view on the issue.  However, maybe there are lessons to be learned by us all.  It strikes me, as I listen to the debate going back and forth across the Chamber, that no side is blameless.

I am sorry to hear of Mr McCarthy's personal tragedy.  As you once were, so was I, I can assure you.  The only thing is that I had to wait 36 years and you had to wait only 28.

With the changeover, we need to pay particular attention to the part of the Bill that deals with community planning, which will be testing.  I can speak with better knowledge about the new council in my area of mid-Ulster, because I have a greater understanding of that area than of others.  The mid-Ulster council will take in Dungannon, Cookstown, Magherafelt and their hinterparts, which is a very big geographical area.  Within that area, there will be sparse populations and big rural hinterlands.  If we are going to do anything in the future, new local government will have to be seen to do what it says.  I have a real concern about localism and rural communities feeling somewhat isolated.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

In the past, there was debate about whether to have 11, seven or 14 councils.  The debate would have been similar, irrespective of the numbers that we arrived at, so it was never going to be easy.  However, I suspect and hope that we will be up for the challenge.  I do not envy the task of the new councillors who will be in charge of all this and taking it forward, because it will be a difficult circle to square.  It will be difficult to deal with community planning because what might work in a rural area will not work in an urban area.  The challenge, therefore, will be how the whole thing dovetails.  The Committee will have another opportunity to go into greater depth and make sure that, where humanly possible, all the issues are covered. 

Finally, we have paid tribute to local government and to councillors who stood up back in the 1970s during the worst excesses of the Troubles.  I would also like to pay tribute to the staff in local government because they, too, were, to a certain extent, on the front line and provided an excellent service.  I know that many will not go along with the change.  They will probably retire, and we wish them well.   Some will go across to the new system, so we have to be sensitive about those changes, too.  We should not take staff, who have shown a very professional approach over the years, for granted.

Photo of Ian Milne Ian Milne Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important legislation.  The Bill will lead to the transformation and restructuring of local government.  It will enable the creation of the 11 new district councils and introduce new governance arrangements, which will protect the rights of all people and provide fair, transparent and effective decision-making.  It will allow for a new council-led community plan, a general power of competence and the transfer of a range of functions from central to local government.  It will also cater for better partnership arrangements between councils, Departments and the Executive. 

Being a public representative on Magherafelt Council for some years, I have experienced at first hand communities' frustrations at the lack of delivery and support for citizens.  The Bill is the start of a process that Sinn Féin believes will bring long-term benefits for our people, but that will be done only by ensuring that the proper checks, balances and protections are in place. 

I intend to concentrate on some specific aspects of the Bill.  Clause 10 covers positions of responsibility.  The allocation of internal and external council positions will be through d'Hondt or a similar method, which is to be welcomed.  We need a proportionate and fair way of allocating council positions — mayors, chairs and committee memberships — that is accepted by all elected representatives and political parties. 

Clause 65 details a code of conduct.  With the transfer of the challenging function of planning to councils, there needs to be a clearly defined set of ethical standards to ensure that relationships and interactions between councillors, constituents, applicants, planning officials and other officers and agents are clear and transparent.  That is required as much to protect the interests of councillors and officials as it is to ensure probity from the general public. 

I welcome clauses 57 to 59 on the commissioner's role and responsibilities in regard to breaches, and I ask the Minister to expand on the cost of the role in his response.  I would also like to know whether there will be an appeals mechanism.

I welcome the formalisation of the partnership panel as stipulated in clause 106.  I urge that we examine partnership arrangements and methods that are best practice in other jurisdictions in order to learn what is the most effective system with which to achieve the greatest outcomes.  It is important, I believe, in addition to giving the 11 new local authorities a voice at the partnership table, that we allow local government to collectively lobby and present their suggestions to the panel through local government associations, as happens in other jurisdictions.  A facility or mechanism is needed to allow that to happen on the partnership panel. 

I also welcome aspects of the Department's supervisory powers, although there is sometimes a thin line between the potential for departmental interference and the autonomous rights of a local authority to carry on its duties unhindered.  We have to be careful to scrutinise these aspects of the Bill to ensure that the correct balance is struck. 

I support the principles of the Bill and look forward to Committee Stage.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP 3:45 pm, 1st October 2013

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill.  Like my colleague the Deputy Chair of the Committee, I am new to the Committee in the sense of only just getting sight of a lot of the work that it has been dealing with over the past few years.  Nonetheless, I look forward to the Committee's work in scrutinising the legislation — if it gets past today, that is, which I cannot see it not.  The Bill is quite large, and there is no doubt that a lot of time will be spent scrutinising it.  I certainly look forward to working alongside the Minister and his Department in doing so.

I need to declare an interest as a member of Cookstown District Council.  I am proud to say that I am a member of that council.  No doubt the Minister has a different opinion on that and is looking to change it, but we will deal with that when we have to.  The difficulty of being down the list of Members to speak when you are dealing with a matter such as this is that a lot of Members have referred to similar issues, so it is just a case of rehearsing those.  However, like other Members, I will get a chance to do so at Committee when we properly scrutinise the Bill.

I think that all Members are trying their best to ensure that the 10.00 pm finish time is not realised.  I will certainly not play any part in getting us anywhere near that.  Nonetheless, I think that it is important that we deal with a few issues.  My colleague Lord Morrow referred to councils' debts.  That issue is very important as we move forward in the process.  He was right to refer to the new mid-Ulster council having little debt.  Although that new council will have debt of about £2·5 million in comparison with other councils that have debts of £10 million, £20 million, £30 million or £40 million, I do not think that we are in a bad place.  It is important that, when we consider the whole process, the ratepayers of the new Cookstown, Magherafelt and Dungannon, or mid-Ulster, council will not have to take on any burden from other councils.  That is certainly an important issue for the ratepayers of our new council area.  Although we have low debt, it is not for the want of projects that we have delivered, whether they are capital or other projects.  I think that all three councils can certainly beat their chests because of the delivery that we have done on behalf of our ratepayers while keeping a low debt and a low rate base.  I think that that is something that we all should be proud of.

A number of functions will be transferred to councils.  The important aspect in all that is that there is very little, if any, cost to councils.  As other Members said, it needs to be cost neutral.  Although many would think that it certainly should not be in year 1, the issue is more that that remains the case in years 2, 3 and 4. 

My colleague Lord Morrow referred to community planning, as did other Members.  Community planning is no stranger to Cookstown District Council and other councils in mid-Ulster.  The challenge for Departments is that they must ensure that they are committed to not only shaping the model but to bringing the finances to the table where needed.  That is a very important part of this.  Although functions can be transferred, I think that it is very important that Departments send representatives.  Mention was made of the possibility of having a chief executive at the first couple of meetings and then having just whoever they can get to go thereafter.  That needs to be looked at seriously to ensure that the highest level of representation from Departments, and so on, is in attendance.

It needs to be a bottom-up approach, shaped by councils and the local area, not driven by central government priorities.  Councils and people know the issues in their areas.  As Lord Morrow referred to, there are issues regarding identity; where the identity in one part of the proposed mid-Ulster council area has nothing in common with that in another part of the council area.  If you look at the stretch from Swatragh to Fivemiletown, you will see that, due to the large geographical nature of the proposed council area, there is very little in common between those localities.  It is important that, when we deal with community planning, no area gets left out.

The mechanism used to bring partners to the table is also important, and I can think of an example in which our council was able to bring the Department into the council chamber to debate Westlands care home.  As a council, we have no real say in how that moves forward.

There is a lot of work to be done in scrutinising the Bill in Committee.  I look forward to that.  As I said, I will not waste a lot of time debating it today.  As we move forward, there will be a lot of work for the Committee to do, and I hope that the Bill passes to the next stage.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Chief Whip, Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Business, Innoviation and Skills), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

On behalf of the SDLP, I support the Local Government Bill.  We warmly welcome the work of the Department in getting the Bill to this stage, and I thank our current Minister, Mark H Durkan, and our former Minister, Alex Attwood, for the work that they have done in bringing the Bill before the House.

There are many complex issues involved in the legislation, and we support the Bill, not without some reservations which some of my colleagues will outline as we go through the debate.  I emphasise that to have the confidence of local people the new councils must fully reflect and respect their interests.

We welcome the provisions of the Bill that, in law and in practice, require power sharing and proportionality to be applied.  Our local politics was once defined by one tradition imposing its will on others.  Future politics here must be defined by a legal duty to ensure that bad history does not repeat itself.  That, hopefully, will be the order of things in local government in about 600 days from now.  That is why those who try to cling to the old and flawed ways of the past are so out of order.

There are some councils where some parties use their weight of numbers to exclude others from proper input in the run down to 2015.  Those are councils in which Sínn Fein and the DUP have the weight of numbers, confirming why this problem is not only a lesson of our bad history but is part of the current everyday experience.  They use their voting strength to get their way.  That is why power sharing, proportionality and fair play must be legislated for.

The SDLP strongly urges those councils that are guilty of bad practice to stop now, rewind, and pull back towards adopting a better practice.  To do that will greatly help council reform, build community confidence and help settle our politics a little at this difficult time, when politics generally is so unsettled.

The SDLP recognises that at the heart of this Bill are the efforts to make local government more efficient and more effective in delivering good services for people.  Local government is at the heart of every community across Northern Ireland.  It is, very often, the first place where people make contact with elected representatives when they try to access local services or raise issues that are affecting them in their everyday lives.  That is why it is so important that local government has the capacity to do the best job and provide the best possible service, ensuring the best possible outcome for all the people in a district or community. 

However, regrettably, the best possible outcome is not always the result, even when the best of intentions are present.  Last December, in Newry, our SDLP councillors, in good faith, joined with their colleagues in voting to reaffirm the name of a play park after an IRA hunger striker.  That play park had been named 10 years previously by a vote in Newry council, supported by a broad cross-section of councillors, unionist and nationalist.  The play park had been known as McCreesh park for 10 years.  The council was satisfied, following the consultation process, which included written responses and a public meeting, that it had carried out an effective equality impact assessment.  One of the council's recommendations was the retention of the name.  The only material difference from what had been the case for 10 years was to place a new official sign in the place of an old one.  I can assure you that the intention of our councillors was sensible and reasonable because, in continuing with the existing name of the park, no other public spaces would be named as such in future.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Chief Whip, Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Business, Innoviation and Skills), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

No; I am not giving way.  I am in the middle of this.  In local terms, the decision was understandable but, in wider terms, it was not understood.  Our representatives acted entirely in good faith.  It was not their thinking or intention to cause any hurt or distress to anyone, yet hurt and distress were caused, and the SDLP — myself in particular — deeply regret that.  I know every one of our members on Newry council.  I have grown up in the SDLP with them.  They have, for years, been on the right side of decisions on multiple issues of life and politics in Northern Ireland.  The SDLP has always stood for what is right, even when some others, brutally and ruthlessly, kept doing what is wrong, again and again.

The SDLP opposes the naming of public spaces and places after people, whatever their background or —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  I am trying to help the Member.  It might be important if the Member could link whatever he might be saying to the Second Stage of the Bill.  I am trying to be helpful and to guide the Member, because we are dealing with the principles of the Bill.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Chief Whip, Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Business, Innoviation and Skills), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

Thank you for your comments, Mr Speaker.  There is a particular reason why I am mentioning the approach of the SDLP today.  Across the 11 new councils, going forward, and in the 26 councils that exist today, there is a multitude of challenges facing us around flags, memorabilia, emblems and the past.  We have to accept that good people with the best of intentions can, sometimes, do things that appear to be wrong with hindsight.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Chief Whip, Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Business, Innoviation and Skills), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

The Member is in full flow here, and I am not in a position to give way.  What the SDLP is trying to do is, quite frankly, to draw attention to a mistake that could be made, unintentionally and unwittingly, and to the fact that there were good people doing it, without any intention to cause offence.  We will deal with that at our upcoming party conference.  We also intend, in the Haass talks process, to attempt to reach a comprehensive outcome, addressing all matters based on respect, equality and parity of esteem, because we feel that it is very important to our local government that, as we approach our new councils, there must be standard laws so that there is not one set of laws for him and one set of laws for her.  We should all have a standard set of laws and a standard benchmark, if you like, of quality going into the councils.  We ask others to give us what we would expect us to give them.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP 4:00 pm, 1st October 2013

I thank the Member for giving way.  I suppose that there is a lesson in all this for me and others: be persistent.

I listened intently to what Mr McDonnell has said.  I do not know whether he is in contrition, denial or confirmation mode.  He tells us today that there was no intention to cause offence to anyone.  I will take him at his word on that.  However, now that you have caused the offence, do you recognise that that was the wrong road to go down, the wrong thing to do and a big mistake to make?  Will you rectify the mistake?  That is all that I want to ask.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Chief Whip, Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Business, Innoviation and Skills), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

Mr Speaker, I am sorry, but I will give Lord Morrow the Hansard report, because that is exactly what I said.  I have no doubt that if he reads my remarks, he will get exactly that from them.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

It is a serious issue.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  Members should not persist.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Chief Whip, Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Business, Innoviation and Skills), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

The opportunity provided by the Haass talks addresses the legacy of the past.  Our party will argue for the primacy of the interests and needs of victims and survivors.  That shall guide us in the talks.

There is much more that I could say about the conduct of others and of other parties and about how they dishonour victims and survivors and fly in the face of respect, equality and parity of esteem.  They say one thing and do the opposite.

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

The points that I am making are not just about McCreesh park in Newry but about how we as a society move forward through the reform of local government and develop the respect that people are entitled to and respect for each other.  This is about how we reflect our people and their views, and reflect what they expect from local government.  There is a certain disillusionment out there with politics and with how we have conducted business in the recent past.  For me, it is all about how we need to reach out genuinely and honestly to each other, embrace reconciliation and create a genuinely shared future for all our children and grandchildren.  To me, that should be the purpose of all that we do in our political life.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I suppose, at this stage of the proceedings, it is for us to comment on the general principles of the Bill.  Before doing that, perhaps I should respond to the comments of the Member who spoke previously.  To those Members who wish to intervene, they are more than welcome to do so, if they want to.

What the Member said outlines many of the concerns over how we are going to do local government.  There is the challenge that people will say and do things that are misinterpreted or looked at in a different light by others.  I welcome the fact that the leader of the SDLP has addressed the issue in Newry.  It is somewhat disappointing that it has taken this time for that to be said, but, nevertheless, in a spirit of reconciliation, I think that the fact that it has been said and an undertaking given that it will be rectified deserves a positive response.  I will give him such a response.  It is a magnanimous thing to say when you have made a mistake and to come forward and say that you will try to make amends.  How those amends are made is, of course, something that we will want to scrutinise.  It may well be something that we need to work together on, because different people will have different opinions on it.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for giving way.  My slight concern is that there was a lack of clarity.  Will the Member join me in saying that, when it comes to making amends, there should be a clear statement from the SDLP, from the leader or any other Member, to say that it will be bringing forward a notice of motion seeking to change the name of the play park?  I did not get —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order, Members.  I remind everyone that we are here to debate the Second Stage of the legislation; we are not here to debate a particular play park.  So, I ask Members to put their comments in the context of the legislation.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

In the context of providing parity of esteem and ensuring that there is the feeling of power sharing in the Bill, which the previous Member who spoke made reference to, does the Member agree that a concrete step would be a clear, unambiguous indication that a notice of motion will be brought by the SDLP seeking to change the name of that play park?  It would not rectify what happened in the past, but it would at least show that there is a willingness to change.  Rather than simply using words to say there is regret, there would be actual concrete action.  Does the Member agree that that is the positive action that is required to rectify this matter?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

Following on from that intervention, and with reference to Part 9 of the Bill on the conduct of councillors and Part 10 on community planning, I will respond to the intervention and say that it is my understanding that the leader of the SDLP has given an undertaking that he is not just acknowledging that there was some misunderstanding, which led to offence, but that he intends to address the issue.  How he addresses the issue is a matter for the SDLP, but we will look at that, and I take on board the points that the Member opposite made.  Nevertheless, the point having been made and counterpoints having been put forward, I think that it is a significant development and one that deserves some sort of proper scrutiny and, at this stage, a positive response from this Bench.

On the general point of the Bill, the question that we have to ask is: why are we bringing this Bill forward at all?  This is about the general principles.  If the Assembly were overburdened with work, and if it were anxious to clear the decks so that it could do more work, bring forward more legislation and tackle more issues that are properly associated with it, you might have some argument about trying to move some work to the councils.  I have to say that that is not the case in this House at the moment.  We appear to be trying to devolve dysfunctionality.  We appear to be trying to take things that we cannot deal with or issues that we cannot resolve and move them to another area, and I have some concerns about that. 

The naming of the park is but one issue, and the flying of the Union flag at all Northern Ireland councils on designated days is another issue that might cause some discussion.  I have heard Members here mention the difficulties with the selection of a chief executive, who will be selected and how.  There were discussions earlier about how we might allocate offices, whether we should use d'Hondt, and there was an exchange between various councils about how that might work.  Those are all significant issues.  Underlining them all, and I think that this was the point that Mr McDonnell was making at the start of his speech, is that there is a fear about an abuse of power by a majority, whatever that majority happens to be, and there is some concern from my position about the fact that we are devolving powers to organisations that will be less able to handle those difficult subjects than this body here.  Were it the case that this Assembly was working really well, meaning that we were really functional and could say, "here is good practice", there might be an argument to see whether we could do something different in another place

The key question facing us in the legislation is: if we were to start again, if we were to remove Northern Ireland's orange and green politics from the equation, would we come up with this particular model for reforming councils?  When we talked about the number of councils — certainly in my sphere of influence — the discussion was about whether 15, 11 or six was right.  The discussion was not to do with purpose or function.  It was to do with who would have majority control and whether these would be orange councils, green councils or whatever.  Unfortunately, this entire project — from the 11-council model, to the governance framework, to the financial models and projected savings — has orange and green politics running through it.  It is, therefore, policy by negotiation, not policy by evidence.  It is policy by barter, not outcomes.  It is policy with little focus on the common good.

We are going through the motions rather than trying to do what is best, and that approach provides lowest common denominator policy.  At this stage of the Bill, not one Member has made a good, strong case that, under this model of reform, the public will be significantly better off in outcomes, finance or representation.

Why should we devolve the dysfunctionality of this Executive and Assembly to more powerful councils?  Perhaps we should put our own house in order first.  There is a question to be asked when you look at the functionality of the body politick.  In the past, some people have said that we have too many MLAs and that we should look at reducing their number.  This question could also be asked: why do we need two tiers of government?  Other Members have, quite properly, made the case that, during the Troubles, councils were one of the main democratic institutions left to us.  We did not have a devolved Administration.  We had MPs, MEPs and councillors.  However, we are not there now.  We are now in a devolved institution.  When you look —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I am always minded to give way to the Lord Morrow.  I trust that he will give way to me at future opportunities.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I recall only one occasion on which I did not give way, and I must have had a very good reason.  Normally, I do give way.

The Member has asked why we need local government.  I remind him that when local government was reorganised in 1973 under the Macrory report, Macrory envisaged an Assembly here.  To be fair to the Macrory report, local government would have been much more effective, although it was quite effective, and I am not taking away from it in any way.  I remind the Member that, under the Macrory report, it was always envisaged that there would be the tier of local government that exists now.  It was envisaged that there would be an Assembly here.  We now have both, and that was always part of the plan, Mr McCrea.  Thank you for giving way.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I am grateful to Lord Morrow for his intervention.  I had purpose in bringing in Lord Morrow.  He made an interesting contribution earlier, which I want to address, not in a confrontational way but to pick up on some of the points that he made.

Look at other council models.  Birmingham City Council, for example, looks after almost one million people.  Some councils in England and Wales have powers over and above what our councils have, including powers over education, social services, planning, waste disposal, recycling and collecting, trading standards, emergency planning, roads, highways and transportation, housing, environmental health, parks, open spaces and countryside, and markets and fairs.  Those councils have to deal with a real amount of work.  A Member from the Sinn Féin Benches said that district councils and local councils currently spend only about 5p in the tax-raised pound and that that is wrong.

The counterargument to the principle behind the Bill is: are we really doing this because, some time ago, someone told us that it is something that we should do?  All that I hear from around the House are fairly guarded comments from Members who are not really sure that this is the right way forward, that we are doing this because it is a train in motion, and that we have to do it at some stage.  I am in concert with Lord Morrow in that I would rather take my time and do it properly than rush it unnecessarily and get it wrong.  If there is a proper function to be done, let us address that and see what happens.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 4:15 pm, 1st October 2013

I thank the Member for giving way.  Having been in this place since the beginning, I think that I am right in saying that the original announcement of the review of public administration (RPA) was made in the year 2000.  By the time all this is put in place, that will be a 15-year time frame.  As the Member considers that we are rushing it, I wonder how long he feels it would take to give it proper consideration?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I was quoting the Member's colleague Lord Morrow, who said that it was better to get it right than to rush it.  So there might be an issue for that to be taken up.  For my part, heaven forbid that there would be a split in the DUP

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

Quickly, Maurice.  A leadership bid?

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Thank you for giving way.  It is good to keep everything in context.  I said what you said I said.  However, I said it in the context that some criticism was flowing against Ministers past and present that this took a long time coming.  So I said, at that stage, better far to take our time and get it right.  I hope that we are getting it right, and it was in that context that I said that.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I am grateful to Lord Morrow for confirming that he said what I said he said, and, of course, we all know that it is very important not to fall out with the Chief Whip.  So we have that sorted.

There are some issues that I would like to bring forward about devolving dysfunctionality.  We appear to have dysfunctional boundaries.  I know that that is not the particular focus of this Bill, but I want to touch on it briefly before I move on.  There are difficulties, and we appear to have constructs that do not fit the natural local environment.  The 11-council model creates boundaries that, seemingly, have not taken into consideration current community identity, civic activity or even journeys and routes of travel for the majority of people in different constituencies.  There is an example between Castlereagh and Lisburn, and another around south Down.  The issue is intensified when we consider one of the key aspects of the Bill, community planning, which is in Part 10, clauses 69 to 86.  According to the Local Government Task Force's planning subgroup recommendation paper:

"The aim of community planning is to make sure that people and communities are genuinely engaged in decisions made about the public services which affect them." and:

"the idea of developing a jointly owned vision for a locality" seems to be something of a challenge when people are geographically dispersed, not part of one particular community but of several, which reflects some of the difficulties that we have raised.  So I have to say that new electoral boundaries, combined with Assembly and parliamentary boundaries, will likely confuse voters at a time of unprecedented political disenchantment.  That is an issue.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way.  I have some sympathy and understanding for what he says in relation to what might be perceived as a disconnect between the boundaries and the new local authorities.  However, I am, sadly, old enough to remember 1977, when I joined Carrickfergus Borough Council.  Essentially, the same argument was made then.  We drew Greenisland, which was part of the former Larne Rural District Council, and Whitehead, which had its own council, into a new borough council, that of Carrickfergus.  The description that Mr McCrea has just given was the description that was given then.  However, the task for local government was to draw the community out of those areas that were put together as a result of the Macrory report.  That is exactly what we were being asked to do some 40 years ago and it is what we are being asked to do today.  I think it a good thing, not a bad thing.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I am grateful to the Member for his intervention.  Unfortunately, I do not have his years to be able to remember from 1977 in that regard.  However, there is no doubt that there is a challenge in front of us.  I am not sure — and this is the purpose of the debate on the Bill — that we are actually ready and able to resolve the issues that are put forward and that the Bill is trying to achieve.

The second area of devolving dysfunctionality is dysfunctional finance.  The PwC report of October 2009, referred to already by Members, indicates that there will be expenditure of £118 million over five years and that that will achieve savings of £438 million over 25 years. 

It indicates that the operational costs will break even in 2017-18 and that it will take until 2020-21 to get a return on the initial investment.  I notice that there were a number of Assembly questions in from Anna Lo about the amount of money that was going to be available to do these things.  The problem is that we can be pretty sure that there is going to be an increase in cost, but it is not certain that we will see a reduction in expenditure or efficiencies.  That is substantially dealt with in the reporting section of the Bill — I think it is Part 12 — which deals with how we will see whether we will see benefits.  I am particularly concerned about that matter.

I will return to some of the points that Lord Morrow brought up when he was talking about debt, which, I think, was a key point.  He helpfully produced some statistics about how well certain councils have done.  I think that he said that £0·5 billion was the total cost of this.  The figure that I have is £459,525,000, so £0·5 billion is correct.  I was also drawn to the figure that Newtownabbey Borough Council has produced.  I will also talk a little bit about Lisburn, just to show that there is no unintended bias on the issue.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Will you talk about Dungannon, too?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I will talk about Dungannon because I think that the Member has a very fair point. 

I looked at the figures for Newtownabbey's current debt.  Members who are members of Newtownabbey council will be able to tell me that it is £46,836,936.  I stand to be corrected, but I think that that is the figure.  What is interesting about that figure is that I looked to see how much the council actually raises in rates and found that the figure is half that; it is £25 million.  This is a colossal burden.  Lord Morrow made the point that you could offset that with the assets and said that that was, maybe, the right way to do it.  The annual general report helpfully states that the council has long-term assets of £85·2 million, but it is not clear that those are actually realisable, because they are land and buildings. 

With regard to the audit powers that we are looking at in the Bill, one of the things that is most interesting is that the audit was not qualified, but noted.  The report states that one area of difficulty arose during the audit, and it states that the council is required to disclose its fixed assets at fair value.  It then states that fixed assets were overstated and that the council had amended its accounts to correct that.  The result is a net book value of land and buildings being reduced by £8·1 million.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I have allowed the Member some latitude, but can I draw you back to the main principles of the Bill, please?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

Mr Deputy Speaker, sir, I am dealing with Part 12, as I indicated to you, which deals with performance improvement and how we might deal with these issues. 

I will put the comparison about the sort of audit support that we need because this is a very important issue.  I looked at two points on this because this is a serious issue.  I looked at the cost of servicing that debt.  Newtownabbey finances that sum of money at £5·5 million per annum.  That is a fairly significant sum.  Interestingly, when we look at Lisburn, which has a mere £25 million of debt, we see that it has to spend only £2·5 million on servicing debt.  When you take that as a percentage of the amount of rates that you bring in, it is a significant proportion.  The point about this moving across and whether we should do it is: if we consolidate these issues, there will be, in my opinion, an increase in rates in the longer term.  The biggest single problem that we have with this is that we will be devolving activity and responsibility without taking care of the financial issues.  Even if there is short-term funding to get us over the hiccup, there will be —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for giving way.  I am trying to be careful because I appreciate what the Member is saying about the funding issue and about performance management.  I am sure that the Minister will address this point in his remarks — the previous Minister spoke about it as well — but the intention from a funding point of view is not to give one-off grants for a year or two but to embrace a fundamental shift in the balance between the local and regional rates.

That means that, at the end of the day, the same functions are being provided and the same amount of money is required for them, but the balance between them is shifted.  The idea that this will create a shift in the balance that will add to the burden on the ratepayer is erroneous.  To be fair, had the Member listened to what Minister Attwood said on a number of occasions — it is what I suspect Minister Durkan will say — he would know that this will not impose an additional burden because it is, effectively, the equivalent of an internal shift.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I hear the words, but political expediency will sometimes come to the fore in the years ahead, and we know that no Assembly can bind the following one.  I suspect that there will be a movement of responsibility without the commensurate level of funding.

On that issue, I would also point to the rates league table.  Much was made of the fact that Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council did not increase its rates.  It is interesting to note that Lisburn, Fermanagh, Dungannon and South Tyrone and Castlereagh councils all have a domestic rate of about 25p in the pound, whereas Derry City Council has a rate of 41p.  So when we talk about where we can get some equality in the amount of money that is being spent in those areas, what recourse do we have for the ratepayers to make sure that the money is spent appropriately?

I have an issue with the way that this is going.  It requires a lot more interrogation and thought.  I am still not convinced that councils will be enabled to deal with difficult issues such as flags and emblems, the protection of minorities and respect.  All those important community planning issues are not going to be dealt with in this Bill.  It is an abdication of responsibility by this Assembly, which, unable to get its own house in order, is seeking to devolve its own dysfunctionality to other places.

On that basis, we should think again.  I am not with those who say that we have to get through this because we have been talking about it for so long now that it will be embarrassing if we do not do something.  This Bill is wrong in principle and it will not improve things for the people of Northern Ireland.  It will not tackle the proper issues.  It is not the right way forward.

I say to all those in this Assembly who have raised their concerns that they will not be able to fix this in Committee.  There is simply too much to do.  We should tackle something a little less ambitious.

People have spoken to me about getting proper representation.  There is a challenge to make sure that our electorate know who it is that they are talking to.  Is it councillors, or is it Assembly Members, Members of Parliament or Members of the European Parliament?  There may well be a situation where there is not clarity, and in my opinion that does not make for good governance.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I support the Bill.  The new Minister is, to some degree, facing a baptism of fire.  He has a fairly lengthy Bill in front of him.  Those of us who have served on the Committee for the Environment know that it is typical that legislation from the Department of the Environment is quite often, by necessity, weighty in nature and has to cover a wide range of issues.

I should declare a number of interests at the start. I am a member of North Down Borough Council — there is tutting from at least one Member on the opposite Benches — and a member of the transition committee and the Northern Ireland Local Government Association.  I was previously a member of the policy development panel, which has given me a degree of insight into this Bill.

I pay tribute to all those who were involved in the strategic leadership board and policy development panel.  Although there will be issues that I and others will query and that we will need to examine at Consideration Stage, I think that many issues have been gone into and teased out in great detail.  So, this has not simply been thrown together by the Department or anyone else.

At the broadest level of the RPA debate, many issues were addressed, particularly by the Members who spoke previously, that are not directly relevant to the Bill.  Beyond community planning, the Bill does not deal with the transfer of functions or the exact balance between the Assembly and local government.  I have to say that the level of functions that we operate in local government in Northern Ireland tends to be a lot less than in other parts of the world.  To shift some of that additional work and responsibility into local government is, I think, a good thing, as it will bring local government closer to the people.  However, I do not want to dwell too much on that, because at the end of the day, the Bill is not about the transfer of functions.  Largely speaking, the Bill also does not pay a great deal of attention to the financial position, although it touches on it.  Again, however, there seems to be a bit of misunderstanding about that. 

Another issue was mentioned that is not in the Bill, but, to be fair, it was suggested that it should be put into it.  That is the issue of flags.  I have read the Bill, and I know that it deals with a wide range of issues, but it does not impact on the flag situation.  It may be another matter if something emerges from the Haass talks.  However, those areas that fly the flag at present will continue to do so, and nobody is going to be in a position to effectively compel it to be flown in those areas where it is not.  I appreciate that a Member may try to scaremonger on this later in the day, but, as with a lot of things, the scaremongering — [Interruption.] What?  Sorry? 

A Member has already briefed that he will try to scaremonger on the issue, and the reality is that, like many previous attempts at scaremongering, it does not add up.  To some extent, the Alliance Party has recognised that, although I disagree with its position.  Members from that party realise that the Bill does not deal with the flags issue, so they are proposing changes to it.  I have to say that I am not particularly convinced about that.  I will look at any amendment that is tabled, but I am not particularly convinced that introducing flag issues to the Bill is a particularly wise way forward.  With respect to those in the Alliance Party who would propose that, their previous intervention on flags in local government last year did not work out particularly well.  Consequently, I think that that is an exercise that is maybe not to be repeated.

I want to deal with a range of the issues that are in the Bill.  First, when the officials briefed the Committee — a large amount of work will have to be done — they mentioned that, between the consultation stage and now, two substantive changes were made to the Bill.  I think that both those changes are to be welcomed.  The first change, which I think Mr Elliott mentioned, is the shift towards the power of general competence.  That is not to be feared.  It will give councils a degree of opportunity, and it has been pushed for for some time, for example, by the Local Government Association.  Indeed, I know that the incoming president of the Local Government Association, Alderman Hatch, who is Mr Elliott's party colleague, has pushed for the power of general competence.  That is an opportunity to give a certain level of freedom to councils.  It will be circumscribed, so, councils will not be able to do something that is illegal or unlawful, for example — it will cover a range of things.  However, it will give a greater degree of power to the councils, and I welcome that.

The code of conduct and the complaints procedure was another issue that was raised.  I think that there has been a considerable improvement on that, but at least one Member raised a concern about it.  There is widespread acceptance of a mandatory code of conduct.  The shift away from investigations being handled internally by councils to their being handled externally by a commissioner of complaints is to be welcomed from a financial and a practical point of view. 

Previously, concerns were raised about internal scrutiny investigations, and having a scrutiny officer in a council was fraught with difficulties.  It led to one of two scenarios.  The first is that that officer would have been in that post and would have dealt purely with the scrutiny of complaints.  We would hope that there would be a very limited number of complaints with local government and that that person would be used fairly rarely.  However, they would have a full-time job, costing a large amount of money and would be largely twiddling his or her thumbs and maybe almost looking for complaints.  I think that there would be a danger in that. 

The more likely scenario raised at an earlier stage with regard to the investigation side and the code of conduct would be that that officer would take that on as part of their portfolio duties.  That would place that council officer in a fairly invidious position, because they would be dealing with complaints against councillors one day and then working with them on human resource issues, or whatever other portfolio, on other days.  That would lead to a massive conflict of interest.  The process of having an independent complaints procedure taken at arm's length is a change to be welcomed.

One area is slightly lacking and needs to be dealt with in Committee.  At present, if a sanction is made against a councillor under the legislation, the only right of appeal appears to be by way of judicial review, which seems to be on fairly narrow grounds.  For example, if someone is being disqualified from council or is being suspended or fined, we need to build into the process a way of challenging that through a right of appeal.

With regard to governance issues, which play a fairly significant part in the Bill, there have been various allegations against various councils.  Some parties and some individuals who have been throwing this about seem to be polishing their halos.  There have been various problems with different parties in different councils throughout the years.

With regard to the issue of handing out positions, it is right that mechanisms are put in place.  I share the view that there is a range of options.  I tried to explain this less from a political point of view and more from a mathematical point of view.  For example, a formula involving single transferable vote does not really work if you have a large number of positions.  I come from a council where, for many years, we have tried to work it out by formal or informal arrangements and not according to a formula, and that has worked fairly well.  Therefore, from that point of view, I would not be doctrinaire and say that there has to be a one size fits all.  However, having examined those issues in previous policy panels, there needs to be a default position.  It seems to be accepted by most parties that the default position is likely to be d'Hondt and what is controlled within that.

From a technical point of view, I welcome the fact that the Department has outlined the precise procedures for d'Hondt in the schedules.  One of the complications that I have seen in local government — sometimes through innocent explanation and sometimes because it has particularly suited one party or another — is that a particular format of d'Hondt has been used over a small number of positions that would suit particular parties.  When d'Hondt is being run for positions once over the lifetime of the council, it would, to some extent, start to deal with some of the issues of representation for smaller parties.  If you are appointing a wide number of positions, possibly up to 50 or 100, it tends to level out.  Where d'Hondt is being used, it is being used consistently and, if it is used by each of the councils in a similar way, that is an advantage.

Mr Elliott referred to the arrangement of functions and, from a governance point of view, whether we would move to a Cabinet-style situation that is permitted within the legislation or use what is akin to what is there at present, which is to have committees.  I suspect that, initially, it would be highly unlikely that any of the councils would move directly towards a Cabinet-style system.  However, with the experience of functions and the scale of the area to be covered, the current model of committees may not suit either.  It is wrong to see this entirely as an either/or situation; it is a spectrum.

We have seen that in a number of councils.  In Belfast, a leaders' group sets a degree of strategic direction.  I think that is also done on Armagh City and District Council, where representatives from each party form an overarching strategy committee.  Those are all means to try to square the circle between a pure committee system and a Cabinet-style system, so we are likely to settle somewhere on that spectrum.

We need to tackle a couple of important issues in the legislation on qualified majority voting, the aim of which is to provide protection to minorities.  It is important that the correct balance is struck.  Consequently, we will have to examine what may impact adversely on a particular community.  It is a matter of protecting minorities while not having a mechanism that is so easy to trigger that is simply creates gridlock in councils.  It is about getting that balance right.  Some of those issues may have to be dealt with in subordinate legislation, but they need to be looked at.  The key to qualified majority voting is the determination of the legitimacy of a call-in, which is an issue that Lord Morrow raised.  Which individual or grouping will give a thumbs up or thumbs down to the legitimacy of a call-in is a difficult circle to square.  I am not convinced that chief executives simply referring an issue to a barrister or solicitor of their choice is the best way forward.  We will need to examine the best way forward in Committee.

Like others, I welcome the idea of community planning.  There is quite often a tendency with RPA to look at the problems.  Community planning has the potential to give communities and councils a much greater opportunity to have a debate about shaping their area.  As Ian McCrea indicated, elements of that have been done in the past.  However, the legislation puts it on a clearer statutory footing.  As Ian and others indicated, however, when we are examining community planning, we need to ensure that its methodology is sufficiently robust.  We must not start with the chief executive on day one, and work our way down the staff so that, by the sixth meeting, the office junior is representing the council with Roads Service, the local health trust or the Housing Executive.  It is important that everybody buys into the benefits of community planning.  We need to make sure that that is done correctly.

The partnership panel is to be strongly welcomed.  The wording of the legislation may need to be looked at slightly.  Although we have assurances from officials, it would be useful if the Minister gave us an assurance on that.  The current wording refers to councillors being nominated or more or less appointed by the Department.  If that is simply a technical device, with the Minister signing off on names that come from local government, nobody will have a problem.  However, if the Minister, as in a medieval royal court, were picking and choosing which of his subjects are best placed to do the job — I do not know how many of his colleagues would make it onto that list, but that is another matter — that would be fundamentally wrong.  I suspect that that is not the case, and I assume that it is the former rather than the latter.  It would be useful if the Minister dealt with that in his remarks at the end of the debate.

It will be useful to have a reasonably uniform system for performance management.  Although I have not been able to get to the bottom of some of the detail, I think that local government has raised concerns about whether that side of things has been got entirely right.  Although I appreciate the desire to ensure that transferred functions in particular are carried out correctly, an overly onerous intervention regime from Departments would, I think, backfire.  That should happen only in extreme circumstances.

One other aspect that was touched on — I may seek clarification as to whether it was, but I know that it was raised in Committee — is that we are now in a situation in which pretty much every council in Northern Ireland has an audit committee.  I think that the bulk of those committees have at least one representative who is independently appointed.  One thing that we may need to look at in the detail of the legislation is trying to ensure that that independent element is made compulsory for all audit committees.  Again, that is something to be looked at by the Committee.

In conclusion, the Bill is another major piece of the jigsaw of moving forward with RPA.  It has actually been a particularly long process.  If the Bill does not come out of the Committee by February, it will not be through any want of the Committee that that target is not reached.  We will need to deal with a wide range of issues.  I have to say that I suspect that, even with the passing of the Second Stage today, we will hear some in local government tell us very earnestly that, despite whatever assurances the Assembly, the previous Minister or the current Minister has given, they have heard that this is not going to happen.  That seems to be the one almost inevitability in local government.  I think that, with the passage of the legislation, a very clear signal will be sent out that RPA is on track.  It is happening.  It will be there to benefit all citizens.  Ultimately, that is what this should be about.

With others on the Committee for the Environment, I look forward to going through the detail of the legislation to ensure that it is correct.  We have a big job of work to do on a very large piece of legislation.  In the past, the Committee has worked hard on it.  We can get this right and ensure that we move forward in a way that benefits all Northern Ireland's citizens.  Therefore, I support the Bill.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance 4:45 pm, 1st October 2013

As I have already mentioned to the House, my local government experience goes back over 30 years.  I joined Carrickfergus Borough Council in 1977, some four years after the last reorganisation.  As others have mentioned, reorganisation of local government has served Northern Ireland well in a number of ways.  In other ways, it has been part of Northern Ireland's problem.  However, we have to pay tribute to those councillors and others for, really, the only democratic light that was switched on anywhere across the Province during some very dark days was in our 26 town halls and civic buildings.  That is not to suggest that many rows and very difficult situations did not also happen inside those buildings during that period.  They did, however, provide stability in the community and society when there was a great deal of instability.

Sharing responsibility in those councils was highly problematic.  Some councils were prepared to embrace some forms of sharing responsibility.  However, the vast majority decided that if they were in the majority, that was the end of the story.  I was fortunate enough to be mayor of Carrickfergus in the early 1990s, not because my colleagues from other political parties were prepared to share responsibility with me and my party but because they were, in effect, squabbling among themselves and had broken into various factions, which resulted in various little deals being done rather than there being any cohesive and responsible policy that allowed for recognition of people being able to deliver for the whole community.

The key part of my contribution to the debate concerns the code of conduct for members.  I could not agree more that we need that code of conduct, because, sadly, over the years we have seen various members of councils get up to things and do things that were not appropriate but that could not be dealt with by the local authority or that members or political parties were not prepared to deal with themselves.  We need a very clear mandatory code of conduct for members.  However, as others have said, if somebody has transgressed and is called before the conduct committee of a local authority, that person needs to have the right of appeal.

That is as important as the protection for the public of knowing that there is a code of conduct and a standard against which members will be called to account. 

The other side of that coin is protection for the employees of local authorities.  In addition to the normal employee-employer relationship, which is, of course, full of rules and regulations, employees in local government can be and sometimes are exposed to pressure from political groups or, indeed, individual members who seem to think that they own a fiefdom rather than have a democratic responsibility in a local authority.  Therefore, we need to give consideration to protecting employees from the overbearing and ill-advised activities of council members and to ensure that council employees themselves do not effectively go native and become de facto supporters of a particular grouping or, indeed, a campaign for something to be built or delivered in a particular community.  So, we need to ensure that the legislation deals with that area of responsibility as well. 

I note that the Bill requires annual improvement reports, but I am disappointed that they are primarily financial improvement reports.  Although such reports are absolutely necessary, these improvement reports need to go substantially beyond the financial activities and financial probity of a local authority.  In improving local government, we need to ensure that we also improve the efficiency, delivery and business of the new local authorities for ratepayers and citizens.  I would, therefore, like to see the whole clause on annual improvement reports changed so that they are delivered by a much wider spectrum of inspection than just financial inspections by the local government auditor.  Simply put, we need to have what are, in effect, school-type reports, indicating how a council is performing against a set of parameters, which are then matched against other local authorities. 

After some 15 years of debating this legislation to get to where we are, we have to wake up and realise that the existing 26 councils are tired and are no longer fit for purpose.  They may have done a good job, but we now need to deliver a modern, efficient and appropriate local government system for the citizens of Northern Ireland that will last for the next 40 years.  It needs to be a system that, I have to say, is not bogged down by the failures of this establishment, as others have said.  We have to rise above that.  We have to recognise the issues that are problems for us and put in place mechanisms that allow local government to deliver  in a modern and effective way for all our citizens.  If that means that we have to deal with the contentious issues of flags, shared responsibility and weighted majorities, we need to put down those rules in the regulations and in the Bill to ensure that, when the new ship of local government sets sail, it does so with a fair wind to deliver for everyone.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am pleased to speak in favour of the Second Stage of the Local Government Bill, which is truly a milestone in the history of local government.  This is the first serious reform of local government in about 40 years.  The Bill, if enacted in its present form, will make some interesting improvements to local government, in particular the recognition of the need to share responsibility in councils.  That is a very important aspect of local government.  In order to attract the confidence and support of local communities, responsibility needs to be shared.  Although that has been done on an arbitrary, ad hoc basis right across Northern Ireland, it is right and proper that it should have some sort of legislative form, and this represents a step towards achieving that.  All of us in the Chamber long for a shared future, and I believe that we can have a shared future at local government level through this Local Government Bill.

I was a councillor, like many others who have spoken during the debate, for 24 years.  I am only a junior in comparison with Mr Dickson or the Lord Morrow.  If you count up the years that Members of the House have served in local government, it would come to perhaps a century or two or even a millennium.  When I served on Belfast City Council, we had a committee system that worked reasonably well, but there have been other experiences in local government, particularly across the water, of the development of Cabinet-style executives.  The Bill permits that type of governance arrangement, and it is right and proper that councils should be given an opportunity to at least try to develop that form of governance.  It has to be done, of course, in accordance with fairness and on the basis of power sharing, but it would be of assistance in streamlining decision making in local government, which can, at times, become very slow and cumbersome.  This option should be welcomed, and I believe that it could change the culture of local government.  Alongside the executive in local government, you would have councillors whose function would be to scrutinise the decision-making of the executive.  I am not absolutely certain whether there is sufficient power among those who scrutinise the decisions of the executive — that is, the councillors who are not involved in the executive — to have what they might regard as bad decision-making reversed.  We have to look at that in the legislation, and it might be useful if the Minister were to express a view on that.  Nonetheless, if the scrutiny function is developed by councillors, it will mean having a different role from other councillors who are engaged in executive decision making, and that will create a political tension in the council — a healthy one in my view — that will create a healthier political environment.

I also welcome the concept of community planning.  That is important for councils, and the council would have a wide brief on community planning.  I am not sure how it would work out in practice, because councils are engaged in quite a number of functions now that are much wider than first envisaged by our traditional councils.  The widening of their scope and function is, in my view, a good thing.  The discipline that will be imposed on councils for continuous improvement in performance will also be a good thing.  It will be an incentive for better performance management of councils, and, whilst councils try to improve their performance, that duty, which will be imposed on councils, will be very important. 

I notice that the Bill refers to the control of councils, but I wonder what that means in practice.  I would be a bit wary of Departments behaving towards councils in a Big Brother fashion.  Councils should be given a degree of flexibility, unencumbered by central government interference.  One of the beauties of councils is that they can take local decisions to deal with local problems and circumstances which they are better acquainted with than central government is.  I would not like to see councils constrained or restrained in that way by Departments.

The partnership panel is an interesting concept.  I am not absolutely certain what it will mean in practice, but if there is a partnership idea — I put the emphasis on partnership rather than having a top-down position by central government to councils — I hope that that can develop.  I am not certain what it will actually mean in practice.  Perhaps the Minister can outline what he believes that would mean.

I also welcome the fact that the conduct of councillors will be put on a stronger statutory footing and that there will be a commissioner looking at the conduct of councillors.  That is helpful and will create a better political and administrative discipline within which councillors will operate.  That will help to raise standards of conduct and behaviour in councils, but it is important that there be that authority. 

On that note, I conclude.  I wish the Bill well.  There will be a lot of work to be done in Committee, but I believe that there is general goodwill towards the Bill from all parties and that we can make good legislation that adds to the general welfare of all our citizens.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:00 pm, 1st October 2013

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  Tugaim moladh don Aire as ucht an Bille a thabhairt os ár gcomhair inniu.  Full marks to the Minister for bringing the Bill before us. 

Local government has given us some of the worst and some of the best: some of the worst in our past that led us through discrimination in housing, jobs, planning and all; and some of the best in circumstances where our councils have worked together on the basis of sharing power, respect, trust and getting to know one another.  It is that grass-roots working that I trust will be embryonic in the Bill — building trust and reconciliation and working our way towards what should be our shared future of local communities and councillors engaging one another and building trust in each other step by step. 

I welcome the Local Government Bill and the potential to debate this important reform and opportunities for our local democratic system of government.  It has taken a long time to reach this stage, but it is important that we get it right.  We face a tight schedule if the Bill is to complete its passage through the Assembly in time for the elections to the new councils, which are hopefully expected on 22 May next year.  I hope and trust that there will be no further unnecessary delay.

The SDLP has consistently argued that the principle of equality must be the cornerstone of any reform of local government and that equality of treatment must be enshrined in legislation.  I trust and hope that the measures in the Bill will achieve that aim.

Some that are noteworthy have already come to our attention in their nominations to the various shadow and transition committees.  Lisburn and Castlereagh councils have come to our attention as potentially not doing things in the way that they should do:  to be inclusive, to be respectful and to have members included on the basis of the mandate that they have sought and on the basis of equality, fairness and respect for their respective mandate.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I thank the Member for giving way.  Would he include in that list one in his patch:  Magherafelt council?

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you very much, Tom, you have stolen my thunder.  The next one that I was coming to mention was Magherafelt District Council, in which Sinn Féin, with 48·4% of the previous mandate, took 80% of the representation on the statutory committee for that area.  Out of five, it took four.  Those are the sorts of things that we hoped had been left in the past.  They do not bid us well for the future. 

Of course, in those examples, I have disregarded what is being done with good faith in many other district council areas.  They did not need legislation to do it.  They knew that it was the right thing to do:  to be inclusive and embrace the membership of —

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I appreciate the Member giving way.  He makes the point about Lisburn, and I think that he unfairly represents something that is not the case.  In Dunmurry Cross, there are six nationalist councillors and one unionist.  Does he not believe that that minority community, which was told that it needs to be part of the shared future, should have a representative on the statutory transition committee?  Sinn Féin has chosen to boycott its opportunity to take up the position.  We have now put forward, in fulfilling our duty, the SDLP member of the council, John Drake. [Interruption.] At least he was up until —

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

The good Member has got his facts wrong.  It is maybe catching around this place, from the top down in his party.  I will clarify that Mr Drake is obviously an independent member.  In making the case earlier, I was not making the case for anyone else.  Indeed, I think that Alliance has been dropped off the end at that council.  I hope that that clarifies it for the Member.  I do not know whether he is a member of the council.  I am sure that somebody there can put him right, so that he can get his facts right, just like his leader. 

I will get back to the Bill.  We trust that the measures included in the Bill will achieve that aim.  As a party, we felt that it was the wrong number of councils.  That is because there was a concern that the smaller the number of councils, the less the connection with local communities and the grass roots.  With a greater number of councils, there would be more connection with those grass-roots communities.  However, the new councils will have a greater role and powers that are more wide-ranging than before, including a new lead role in community planning.  It is vital that those powers are exercised with great responsibility.  One of the most significant measures in that regard is the enshrinement in law for the first time of the sharing of council positions across political parties.  The introduction of a mandatory code of conduct for all councillors and increased transparency of council proceedings will help to generate a culture of greater accountability to the public.  The Bill also includes important measures designed to protect the interests of minority groups in the new council areas. 

In the past, we have seen examples where political interference has prevailed rather than the primacy of equality and good practice.  That has led to bad decisions and downright discrimination in housing, employment and planning.  The qualified majority clause and the call-in procedure for contentious decisions should, I hope, enable local representatives to prevent the kind of abuses of power that have, unfortunately, characterised our past; indeed, some of our recent past. 

The subordinate legislation that is to follow, further defining the new measures, will be carefully examined to ensure that there is no dilution of the commitment to equality intended in the Bill.  My party is most definitely committed to ensuring that these equality measures remain at the heart of the new legislation that reforms our local government, so that civil rights and civil liberties are at the heart of the decision-making process at local government level.

It is essential that the principle of equality is the cornerstone of reform of local government and that equality of treatment is kept enshrined in the Bill as it passes through this Assembly.  That is for all our people, be they unionist or nationalist, or from different backgrounds or other minority communities, or indeed, other individuals.  Only then will we have truly the best from local government for all our people.  That is the motivation behind the Bill, I trust, and that is the new society, we hope, it will help to bring us to — a shared and respectful future, respecting and catering for all difference. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

Reflecting on the debate so far, one might ask how we have got to this point.  How have we achieved this?  How have we ended up with an 11-council model?  Are we trying to make this fit because it has always seemed to have some agreement on it?  Different Members have commented on it. 

I would urge tremendous caution on the Bill and the changes to local government, simply because we will be stuck with this for a very long time, given that the last reorganisation of local government was in 1973.  It will have lasted more than 40 years by the time this Bill, if it is successful, goes through.

It is also strange that one of the arguments for doing this, which Lord Morrow progressed, was that, in the 1973 reorganisation, it was always envisaged that there would be an Assembly here as well as a tier of local government.  Bizarrely, now that we have an Assembly, one of the first things it decided was to reorganise local government, even though we went through the past number of years without an Assembly, and local government, as many Members said, was the one part of our democratic system that had some form of function.  All this leads me to the obvious conclusion that the case has simply not been made as to why we would reorganise local government or, indeed, whether this is the right model for that reorganisation.

Look at the various Parts of the Bill, such as community identity and how you would build that.  I take Stewart Dickson's point that some people felt that way in 1973 or in 1977 and that there was no identity.  Take places such as Ballynahinch, where the population probably naturally looks more towards Lisburn, but its parliamentary constituency is Strangford, and its new council will be Newry City, Mourne and Down District.  Where are the linkages there?  Where are the common community identities in that model?  It seems that we have decided, pretty much, on a carve-up deal.  We could not get agreement on what it was going to be; the original number of councils was seven, and then we moved to 11 as a sort of compromise.  So, now, we have got to the point where this Bill is trying to make all that fit into the model that we have already decided upon. The Bill is effectively trying to put a round pin into a square hole; it is not going to fit, and it is not going to work well.  That is why I, along with my colleague Mr McCrea, argue that you cannot devolve the dysfunctionality of this Assembly to local government and expect it to work and expect that, by some miracle, it will function and actually achieve a solution to some of the cases and deal with the difficult issues that it will have to deal with.  We cannot even agree on what the flag-flying policy at times should be here.  How are we going to get councils to agree on and deal with those issues?

The financial case, I have to say — and the Minister, I am sure, will want to tackle this — the financial case, of all things, certainly does not stack up.  Councils that have lower rate burdens and lower debt burdens are merging with councils with much higher debt burdens.  I just do not see how that — how this Bill — is going to be in the interests of ratepayers in those areas.  You come back to looking right across the board:  where is the joined-up government?  The model in the Bill, which we are debating, does not fit in with anything that we already have out there.  It does not fit with our parliamentary and Assembly constituencies.  It ploughs through many of the district councils that we already have.  It does not fit with any health trusts, education boards — anything that we have out there.  So there is no sense of any coterminosity with anything on any of these issues.

Then we come to the point of why we think that some of our voter numbers are going down.  Why do we think people are disconnected from the political system when they see no relevance in this Bill to what they will pay in their rates and what services they might get?  That is why I just do not think that this Bill is worth any merit.  We have designed a system with no strategic vision of what we are going to do, and we have just said "That is the system."  Now, effectively, to the Minister we are saying, "write a Bill to make it fit."  I do not think that is an acceptable way of doing business.

That is before we even look at planning.  Does anyone here truly believe that councils are going to be one of the best places to deal with planning? We already have a very difficult planning system.  Do people think that devolving that system to councils will improve it, speed it up or bring any type of strategic vision?  Of course, the Minister might get a lucky break on that, and OFMDFM might just take the planning system off him altogether and not devolve it to councils.  I do not think that councils are fit or have the capacity, quite frankly, to deal with planning issues.

Most of our council functions at the minute are dealing with waste.  I can certainly tell you, Deputy Speaker, as a rural dweller, that I do not particularly feel a great linkage between what I pay in rates and what I get in the delivery of council services.  I get my bin emptied, and that is about the height of it.  I think that when we merge councils together and look at what is going to happen on the finance in this Bill, we begin to question how that is going to make for even more disillusionment for ratepayers and voters, who will wonder why there are no linkages there.

Look at all this dysfunctionality that we are proposing to devolve to councils.  We are also wanting to devolve, effectively, a petition of concern mechanism to councils.  I have to say that that has really served us well in here.  Look at the number of times that the DUP has used a petition of concern — on some strange pieces of legislation, on clauses and on different things that it just objects to, it says, "We will use a petition of concern."  That is something that we are proposing to put out to councils.  I see Mr Campbell pointing.  He has to know that no other party can actually sign a petition of concern on its own, so at least you have a safeguard there of needing a second party.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP 5:15 pm, 1st October 2013

I thank the Member for giving way.  I was pointing because Mr McCallister was referring to the fact that the DUP has used the petition of concern mechanism, which is true.  I was pointing to indicate that many people have used a petition of concern, but he chose only to mention the DUP.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I think it is obvious why I chose only to mention the DUP.  The DUP is the only party that can sign a petition of concern on its own. Sinn Féin needs —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order. Can I draw the Member back to the Bill, please?

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

Yes. Thank you, Deputy Speaker.  That is the point in the Bill.  Why would you devolve that type of mechanism to councils, considering the chaos that, quite frankly, it sometimes causes in this Assembly?  I am not sure that the arguments are there for it.  So, at every turn, we look at that dysfunctionality; we look at the carve up of orange and green politics that infects this place — the sectarianism that infects this place — and we put that out to local government.  That is exactly why we have come up with an 11-council model and drafted the Bill to say that that is what will happen.  There is no light yet on whether we are devolving the financial wherewithal to do some of this or whether we are simply devolving the powers without the financial responsibility.  All of that paints a very grim picture of how good the model is for moving forward the reorganisation of local government.

I come back to the point that the case has not been made.  Not one Member today has made a case beyond saying that it is about time that local government was reorganised.  The most convincing case probably came from Stewart Dickson who said that our councils are old and tired:  that is about all we have.  We are doing something that might set up a council structure for the next 40 years, and that is the only basis for it.  What are the great arguments from the DUP or Sinn Féin for doing this?  We are devolving areas of responsibility, and there are questions over whether our councils would be capable and whether there are linkages between voters and ratepayers and how they link into that?  On every single issue, we are asking the Assembly to devolve our dysfunctionality to councils, and we somehow think that it will all work and end happily.

We look at the state of the Chamber and we think, "Why do we not replicate this across Northern Ireland and have the relationships that we have here across local government?"  There will be the same parties across local government.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Some parties will not —

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I hear him shout.  Hopefully, there will be a sense of fresh politics in some councils to add a touch of sanity to the proceedings.

That is why we will be opposing the Bill.  It has not been well thought through.  No one has made the case.  In doing this, we are very much trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.  It is wrong, it is bad legislation, and the model has not been proven.  The projected savings are very much in doubt, and the ability of councils to deliver some of these things, particularly planning, is also in doubt.  We are devolving our failings to the councils, and that is not a good way forward.  That is why I will be opposing the Bill.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

No doubt, there are some who would like the general public to believe that what we are engaged in today is a coherent, structured process of reforming local government in a manner that is cogent and logical; that we have taken to redrafting boundaries on a sensible and rational basis and not, which, of course, is the reality, on the basis of a carve-up settlement between the DUP/Sinn Féin axis, so that we have produced such ludicrous twinnings as Ballybeen with Moira or Ballynahinch with Newry and we, in the process, have sold out and abandoned the unionist position in Belfast.

This is from a starting point where, of course, there were some who said that the logical outcome was 15 councils.  If 15 was right then, it is right today.  The reason we do not have 15 is because of that squalid deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin to produce 11 councils, and, in the process, do the things that I have said.

Along the way, we did have some sham fights.  We had the Health Minister, when he was Environment Minister, go through the great process of a sham fight about Dunmurry.  What about Dunmurry now?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Yes.  Shadow boxing, sham fight — whatever you like, Mr Campbell — no doubt all those designations would fit.  Of course, in traditional DUP fashion, it all faded away — another rollover.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

May I draw the Member back to the Bill?  He will be aware that some of the issues that he is speaking about are not dealt with in the Bill.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I will come back to the content of the Bill.  I thought, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you were rising to protect me, shrinking violet that I am, from Mr Campbell's sedentary interruptions. [Interruption.]

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I will try to deal with those in my own way.

Here comes Mr Poots, the man of whom I spoke, the Dunmurry sham fighter.

It has been suggested that this is a cogent, coherent approach to the reform of local government, which we will consummate with the elections on 22 May.  The reality, however, is that we are discussing a Bill about how local government should function in the reformed system, without knowing whether it has any chance of being in law by 22 May.  I suspect that it probably will not be.  So we will elect new shadow councils on 22 May, with none of the Bill's content likely to be in law by that date.  It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that, considering the snail pace of the House, come April 2015, when the new councils are supposed to take over, this legislation will not even be in place.  What happens then?  Will the Minister have to come in with an extension order for the 26 councils?

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way.  I do not think that it will worry the DUP too much, considering that the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) has been in shadow form for years.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I think that somebody should put ESA out of its misery, and that would solve that problem.

My point is this:  we are involved in a process that lacks the structure and cogency to assure that it can deliver workable, functioning local government.  We are so late in the process that, come those elections, the legislation might still be in draft form rather than being an Act of the Assembly.  Perhaps it suits some to be able to say, "When we get into the new councils, wait till you see what we will do.  We will deal with the flags issue and all sorts of issues" — happy in the knowledge that they can say that because there is nothing binding in the legislation.  They do not then have to face up to what they have sold out to in the legislation.  They can beat their chests in traditional fashion, knowing that they can put off the evil day of facing up to the realities that will be effected should the legislation come into play.

I say to the Minister:  what happens on 22 May if the Bill is not in place?  What is being said to the people of Northern Ireland about the future shape of their local government?  What happens to the councils if it is not even in place in 2015?

I find the Bill excessively prescriptive.  Many of the arrangements are stifling and prescriptive in the restraints that they place on councils, no more so than the governmental arrangements.  What we have in the Bill is an institutionalising of d'Hondt.  There are some in the House who, for years, have told us how hostile they are to d'Hondt and how their political ambition is to rid the House of it.  I know that their actions defy their words, but those are their words.  Yet here we have them supporting the very institutionalising of d'Hondt in local government.  It has worked really well here, has it not?  Now, we will institutionalise it in local government and expect that doing so will provide working local government.  Did we learn nothing from the experiences of recent times? 

When I say that the legislation is highly prescriptive, I am thinking of the fact that one of the governmental arrangements is an executive of the council.  You might have a 40-man council, you might have a 60-man council, but you will have an executive of between four and 10 running it.  What the other 30-odd or 50-odd are meant to do is not very clear.  Maybe we could give them a little scrutiny role — that should keep them happy.  That should make them sound and seem important.  However, when it comes to running the council, let us give it to the big carve-up, the four to 10 members.  That proposition is not about sharing power; it is about concentrating power in the hands of the few. 

Indeed, there are some remarkable things in the Bill.  In clause 26, there is a presumption that all power in those circumstances will be vested not in the council that is elected but in the executive that is selected.  Likewise —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 5:30 pm, 1st October 2013

I thank the Member for giving way.  Does he not recognise that the executive is one of a range of governance options?  The executive is exactly the system that operates in the vast bulk of councils in England, Scotland and Wales.  Portraying it as sinister when it is simply one option on the table and replicates what exists elsewhere seems slightly ludicrous.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Member says that it is one option; it is the first option stated in the Bill.  It is an option and is, I suppose, one of two main options.  However, the clause is predicated upon acceptance of that option.  Clause 27(3), for example, states:

"(3) Accordingly, any function which is the responsibility of an executive of a council under executive arrangements -

(a) may not be discharged by the council".

So the corporate action, the right and responsibility of the council itself, is removed and vested exclusively in the dictating cabal that is the executive, and there is no accountability of any meaningful nature back from that.  So I will say this again:  you elect 40 people, maybe six get to exercise real power.  The rest are observers of and passengers in the process.  Robbing councils of their corporate power does not improve the democratisation of local government.

It is interesting that an individual councillor who seeks information under the Bill can be denied it.  Clause 37 (3) states:

"(3) The overview and scrutiny committee or the council, in providing a copy of the document to a councillor, may exclude any confidential information or relevant exempt information."

The council can keep information from that councillor.

Clause 37(4)(a) states:

"Where information is excluded ... the overview and scrutiny committee or the council, in publishing, or providing a copy of, the document may replace so much of the document as discloses the information with a summary which does not disclose that information".

Clause 37(6) has this classic line:

"The overview and scrutiny committee is nevertheless to be taken for the purposes of section 36(3)(c) or (d) to have published or provided a copy of the report or recommendations."

So you can conceal, but there is a statutory presumption that whatever you provide is the full story.  Where is the openness and transparency that some boast about regarding this particular proposal?

Let me come to something that Mr Weir sought to preview for me.  It is interesting that the DUP Chief Whip has time to follow my tweets.  I do not know whether I should be flattered or otherwise, but there you are.  I come to the issue of weighted majorities — qualified majorities — in the Bill and where that sits and how it plays with the important issue of symbols and flags for councils.  We all know from recent experience just how pertinent and far-reaching the impact of councils flying or not flying a flag can be.  What does the Bill state about that?  It states some very interesting things.  It states that some decisions according to standing orders will be taken by qualified majority.  A council might well decide of its own volition what will and what will not be decided by a qualified majority, which is 80%.  The key statutory provision is in clause 42(2)(c), which gives the power to the Minister to make regulations that:

"require that a vote with respect to a matter falling to be decided by the council ...  is to be taken in a particular manner."

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

When I have finished the point.

The Minister reserves for himself the right by regulation to override a council, to dictate and determine that a vote on a particular matter is to be taken in a particular manner, which incorporates a qualified majority.  The first question that arises is this:  is the Minister minded to make a regulation pertaining to flag-flying in councils?  The Alliance Party has suggested, for example, designated days across the Province in all councils.  Others suggested sitting days, and others more than that.  The first question is this:  is the Minister minded to make such a regulation?  I suspect that he is not.  If he is not, that matter then falls to the individual councils.  The starting point for any new council is a clean sheet of paper.  They do not inherit the flag policy of their previous constituent parts.

They start with a clean sheet of paper.  Say the Minister decided, in those circumstances — foolishly, I would say — that he was going to make a regulation that required a vote on such a matter to be by a qualified majority, then a proposition that, for example, the Union flag shall fly from Ballymena Town Hall, Carrickfergus Town Hall or Larne Town Hall would, in those circumstances, need 80% of the elected councillors to support it.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

In a moment.  The exercise starts with a blank piece of paper.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The Member has obviously read clauses 41, 42 and 43 assiduously, but it is a pity that he did not read further in the legislation.  The Member refers to regulations, specifically in clauses 42 and 44, which deal with standing orders, and clause 125 states:

"(3) Regulations and orders to which this subsection applies must not be made unless a draft of the regulations or order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, the Assembly."

The Minister does not have a free hand.  Should he want to take action to compel a council to make the flying of a flag subject to a qualified majority vote, he would have to bring that to the House as a regulation, which would then require the approval of the House.  We have read this clause, and it is a pity that the Member has not read it quite so well.  I am sorry to burst his bubble.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I assure you that I did read it.  Is that meant to give me comfort, that the flying of the Union flag relies on the DUP having the bottle and the courage to see off a regulation?  Based on past performance, I take no confidence from that whatsoever.  That is a classic playing out of a trade-off, whereby one regulation is blocked, another is blocked, and eventually there is a mishmash of a compromise.  If Mr Weir is saying that I should sleep well tonight because the Union flag is safe in his and his party's hands, I am sorry, but from past experience, it is not.  On past experience of stopping what Sinn Féin wants to do in government, it has a miserable record of failure.  Look at education and at how Sinn Féin rampaged through that.  Despite all the supposed vetoes, there has not been a whimper to stop them. [Interruption.] Not a single attempt to stop them —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  The Member should take his seat.  I am trying to help the Member and steer him back to the Bill.  The Second Stage debate should be on the principles of the Bill.  I am trying to be helpful to the Member.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I come back to my point and the fact that the Minister can bring forward a regulation to force the hand of a council.  I am asking the Minister — let him answer in his response — whether he is minded to seek to bring forward regulations touching on flags if he is not bringing forward a regulation dictating the policy on the flying of flags across the councils.  Is he likely to do what I have suggested?  He owes us an answer that is straightforward and honest, as I am sure it would be.

I will pick up on Mr Weir's comment.  If the Minister brings forward a regulation that is blocked, what happens then?  If you are starting with a blank sheet of paper, as you will be with these councils, and there is a proposition that the Union flag should fly from council premises 365 days a year, does Mr Weir really think that, because of the way in which the Bill is worded, the Minister cannot do anything about that?  I hope that he is right, but does he really think that?  I suspect that he knows he is not right.  The difficulty is that you are not inheriting the policies of the constituent bodies that make up the new councils.  You are starting from a fresh position, from which, if the hurdles are laid as they can be laid in the Bill by the Minister, the prospects of the flag being able to fly when it should be flying are in severe jeopardy.  I say to Members who care about those things that they need to think cautiously and carefully about that.  We could get ourselves into a situation in which our latter position is worse than our first.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP 5:45 pm, 1st October 2013

I thank the Member for giving way.  He used the euphemism of thinking carefully and cautiously.  I ask him to think carefully and cautiously and tell us whether his opposition, as one imagines is what he meant by that, means that he would prefer the current 26-council make-up and all that flows therefrom to their reconstitution under the Bill.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

On matters of acting cautiously and carefully, I wish that Mr Campbell would give that advice to his party leader.  Let us be clear: I wanted a 15-council model, as Mr Campbell did.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

That was not the question.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  There should not be debate across the Chamber.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Mr Campbell, once more, rolled over on that.  Do I want 11 councils of this amalgam as opposed to 26?  Frankly, I think that the 26 is probably marginally preferable to the 11 but not as good as the 15, which we could have had if Mr Campbell, not for the first time —

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

That will do — "marginally preferable".

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— had not been a rollover unionist.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I want to say a few words as Chair to inform Members about the Committee's interest in the arrangements specific to Part 9, which deals with the conduct of councillors.  The Committee is interested in these arrangements because it envisages that complaints about breaches of the code of conduct for councillors will be policed by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints.  Members may recall that, on 16 September, we debated and approved in the Chamber the Committee's proposals for a Bill to reform the office of Commissioner for Complaints and merge it with that of the Assembly Ombudsman, thus creating a new public services ombudsman's office.

The then Minister of the Environment, in his contribution to the OFMDFM response to the Committee's proposals, referred to the consultation on a new ethical standards framework for the new councils.  That consultation envisaged a central role for the Commissioner for Complaints, who would investigate and adjudicate on complaints.  The Minister concluded by indicating that he would advise the Committee of the final policy proposals that he intended to introduce once they were agreed by Executive colleagues.

The Committee was briefed on the proposals by the current Commissioner for Complaints, Dr Tom Frawley, on 22 May this year.  He said that the envisaged arrangements would resemble those operating in Wales and cost considerably less than other options under consideration.  I refer Members to his testimony on that day.  He said that, if we were to adopt or transcribe what happened in Wales, he envisaged six-figure savings. 

Dr Frawley also emphasised the potential for extended hearings, with all parties legally represented, resulting in a correspondingly expensive process.  Tom Frawley advised that the Welsh Government had indemnified councillors, which had encouraged their use of lawyers.  He went on to highlight the need for a process designed to limit and, indeed, eliminate the potential for the cost of the process to escalate.  Dr Frawley felt that the remit was a reasonable fit with the current role of the Commissioner for Complaints but raised a concern that the additional responsibilities be properly funded.  He felt that the Department of the Environment should be central in making the necessary resources available and that it should not be left to him or his successors to:

"go and negotiate the funds for it".

From looking at the arrangements in clause 67, it seems that the commissioner will have to issue bills to the new councils for their apportioned share of the costs of operating the new system.  Councils "must pay" their share to the commissioner, and, if they do not, it is deemed to be a debt recoverable by the commissioner.  That is set out in clause 67(4) and clause 67(5).  I am not sure that that type of billing arrangement is what Dr Frawley had in mind when he told the Committee that those who ask the commissioner to take on these responsibilities:

"should also have a critical role in agreeing and taking on the costs, and in making funds available to fulfil the roles."

It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate whether Dr Frawley is content with the proposed funding mechanisms and with the other arrangements that are set out in Part 9. 

I believe that Committee members will wish to be assured that that new remit will be properly funded and that its delivery for the Department of the Environment will not dilute the commissioner’s ability to deal with citizens’ complaints about public services.  Dr Frawley also emphasised the need for a commitment to review those new arrangements in three to four years and to make any changes that may be deemed necessary.  The Committee will keep these proposals under review and will liaise with the Committee for the Environment as more detail becomes available.  As indicated in the Committee’s report, we will wish to ensure that these proposals are developed in a manner that is consistent with the model for establishing and holding the proposed new public services ombudsman to account through an enhanced relationship with the Assembly.

Mr Speaker, thank you for your indulgence.  I will now say a few words in my capacity as a Member.  As you would expect, I am fully in favour of a properly funded and resourced regime to police complaints concerning breaches of the code of conduct for councillors.  Beyond that, I will not rehearse the points that my colleague Mr Elliott made when he highlighted what we think is right and what we think is wrong about these proposals.  It is suffice to say that, as we come towards the end of the debate, the Ulster Unionist Party will do what is right for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am grateful to the Chair of the Environment Committee and to Members from all sides of the House for their consideration of the Bill and for their largely measured and positive contributions.  Their comments, even those that were maybe not so measured and positive, have all been valuable. 

I will now respond to issues that were raised, and I assure Members that I will also read over the Hansard report covering the debate to ensure that I have not missed any issues.  If I find that I have, I will write to the Members concerned.  There was quite a degree of repetition throughout the debate, and that is not in any way a criticism of the debate or the debaters but, indeed, an indication of Members' common questions and concerns.

The first contributor was Ms Anna Lo, the Chairperson of the Environment Committee.  She spoke in some detail about the impact that the legislation will have on all levels of a council's performance.  She spoke of the raft of subordinate legislation and regulations to follow.  I look forward to working with her and the rest of the Environment Committee on that.  I will depend very heavily on guidance, help and cooperation from the Environment Committee as we attempt to progress this legislation.  Ms Lo asked several pertinent questions and raised several pertinent points, all of which I will address now.  At least, I hope that I will address all of them, and, if I do not, I am sure that she will come back to me. 

First, she was keen to explore capacity building for community planning.  My Department has established a pilot and community planning working group in partnership with local government to prepare for the introduction of community planning.  The working group has developed a foundation programme to help statutory transition committees and transition management teams in each new council cluster to make preparations.  The programme sets out advice on key building blocks that councils can put in place in the interim, and that is due to be rolled out at the end of this month. 

My Department will also be providing capacity-building to support councils in preparing for the community planning duty that they will receive in April 2015.

She then asked if we could specify the bodies that will be required to participate in the support of community planning and guidance for the operation of community planning.  The answer is that those bodies will be specified in regulations.  I can confirm that my officials will engage fully with the Committee on the list of bodies that will be included.  Officials will also engage with local government and the Committee in drafting the community planning guidance.

There were issues around positions of responsibility.  Ms Lo was of the opinion that a locally agreed approach to allocating positions would be the most appropriate way forward, and I agree; but, in the absence of any political maturity in councils — and, sadly, we have seen evidence of a lack of political maturity lately — I consider it more appropriate to define d'Hondt as the default method for allocating positions.  The manner in which the process will operate will help to mitigate the drawbacks associated with that formula approach.

There was a question around the level of membership required for call-in and qualified majority voting.  I am satisfied that the level of membership of a council required to request that a decision is reconsidered and for a decision or resolution to be agreed by a qualified majority strikes the appropriate balance between providing protection and enabling council business to proceed.  Those levels were agreed by political parties through the strategic leadership board as part of the policy development process.

A point raised by Ms Lo, and echoed by Mr Elliott and Lord Morrow, was around the role of a solicitor or barrister through or during the call-in process.  The individual concerned will have no role in the decision-making process.  Their role will be to confirm whether members requesting the reconsideration of a decision have articulated a case as to the disproportionate adverse impact that would arise if the decision was implemented and the community was affected.  Ultimately, it will be for members of the council to make the decision on the matter under consideration.  The details of how the process will operate will be specified, once again, in regulations, which will be subject to the affirmative procedure.

Ms Lo asked why we were removing the blanket prohibition on council employees becoming councillors and whether that might have the potential to create conflicts of interest.  The inclusion of the provision is in direct response to a judgement in the European Court of Human Rights in a case taken against the UK Government by a group of senior local authority officers that the prohibition then in force violated their rights under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  My Department sought legal advice, which indicated that failure to remove the blanket prohibition here could leave my Department open to a similar challenge.  The Department will engage with appropriate stakeholders, including the Environment Committee, prior to a public consultation on the proposal about which officers will be subject to the bar.

The date of election is another question that Ms Lo raised.  My Department has been working closely with the Northern Ireland Office in relation to arrangements for the next local government election, including the proposal to bring the date of the election forward to 2014.  Moving the date of the election will allow for a transitional period — a shadow period — in advance of the 11 new councils taking up their full range of powers and responsibilities.  I understand that an Order in Council is to be laid at Westminster early this month, which will conclude provision for the election to take place on 22 May 2014, subject to Parliament's approval of the legislation.

There were questions, not just from Ms Lo but from other Members, around the code of conduct and what might be included in that.

It is proposed that the mandatory code of conduct be consistent with the seven Nolan principles with which we are all familiar — at least, we should be — of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.  It will include the four additional principles adopted in the code of conduct of the Northern Ireland Assembly:  equality; promoting good relations; respect; and good working relationships.  The document will provide information on the background to the code; outline its legislative basis; identify and provide clarification on the principles that underpin the code; outline the standards of conduct expected of councillors when acting as councillor and/or conducting council business; outline the behaviours expected of councillors when dealing with fellow members and officers of councils; and, very importantly, clarify what is expected of councillors with regard to planning matters.

Ms Lo expressed a concern, which was reiterated by Mr Elliott, Mr Milne and Mr Dickson, that there was no appeals mechanism relating to complaints.  As with any decisions made by public bodies, the judicial review process is available to any person who feels that an injustice has occurred.  Prior to a decision being made, a person who is alleged to have breached the code will be given the opportunity to refute that allegation, in person, through the commissioner's office.  I have asked officials to bring forward for consideration a paper on options for a possible appeals mechanism.  If necessary, I will table an amendment on that at the next stage. 

Ms Brown was the next contributor to the debate.  I congratulate her on her elevation to Deputy Chair of the Environment Committee, and I look forward to working with her.  Her contribution focused largely on existing collaboration — or what should be existing collaboration — between councils through the ICE programme.  She asked how we could ensure that the ICE programme was inclusive of all councils, and not just an option.  The ICE programme is, rightly, owned and delivered by the local government sector itself.  That said, I and my predecessor have encouraged all councils to participate fully in driving savings through ICE.  To support that, I am enshrining in legislation the requirement to fully and formally address performance improvement in local government. 

The ICE programme has delivered savings.  A considerable amount of work has been carried out in a number of ICE work streams, including customer-facing services, procurement, ICT, human resources and support services.  That work has begun to deliver efficiencies, and I am encouraged by the fact that the chair of SOLACE recently indicated that local government has begun to develop a culture of collaboration.  I strongly feel that that culture will need to be developed further to enable improved citizen-centric services while ensuring minimum rate increases.  Furthermore, I strongly agree with my predecessor that all councils should be availing themselves of each and every opportunity to become more efficient and prudent with ratepayers' money.  That may mean that councils' senior people, officials and elected members, will have to show leadership to ensure a more cohesive and consistent approach to embracing the principles of the ICE programme. 

I understand that the ICE customer-facing services work stream produced a conservative estimate that the available savings over the next 25 years will be £200 million.  I would like all ICE work streams to carefully identify what efficiencies they have already put in place and estimate what savings will be delivered in the future.  I have asked the ICE leads to develop a matrix to capture that information and to provide me with it as a matter of urgency.  I will be happy to share that with the Committee and the House.  It is important that we learn from what ICE has achieved and build on that model.  Hopefully, that will result in more shared services across local government, not just in the new clusters but across them.

Ms Brown questioned community involvement in the planning and delivery of services and had another question around community planning.  The Bill places a clear statutory requirement on the new councils to engage effectively with the local community and its representative bodies.

Mr Boylan — he is awake — said that his party has always been supportive of reform and making local government more accountable.  It is fair to say that everyone in the House wants to ensure that local government is as accountable as possible.  He said that this is one of the most important pieces of legislation that we will deal with in this Assembly.  I am not sure whether I would go that far, but I will say that it is the most important that I have dealt with so far.

He asked whether I could provide details of the subordinate legislation.  The Bill contains a number of enabling powers for subordinate legislation, guidance and other statutory documents.  Those will include regulations on standing orders for councils, which I will make; provisions for regulating proceedings and business; regulations to designate those employees who will still be prohibited from being councillors; regulations to provide more detail on the new executive arrangements, including the functions that cannot be delegated to an executive; order on overview and scrutiny arrangements; regulations to specify the community planning partners; regulations on performance indicators and performance standards; and the mandatory code of conduct.

There will also be statutory guidance on executive arrangements, positions of responsibility, community planning, performance improvement and the schemes of transfer of assets, liabilities and staff.  Mr Boylan emphasised the need to ensure that proportionality applies and the precise method of application of each of the alternative approaches to the sharing of positions as specified in schedule 3 to the Bill.  That removes any potential for doubt or manipulation and ensures that each approach is applied consistently across all councils.

He was the first to raise the issue of the qualified vote, although many after him did so, and what council decisions might be subject to it.  Building on my commitment to ensure that the interests of minority communities are protected, the following decisions will be specified as requiring a qualified majority vote: the political governance arrangements to be operated by the council; the method to be used for the sharing of positions of responsibility; the method to be used for ensuring that the membership of a committee reflects the political balance on a council; major capital projects; programmes that impact across a number of district electoral areas; and, in response to a legitimate call-in, on adverse impact grounds.  He also asked about the change in the 15% level to the call-in.  Any proposed changes to the percentage of Members required to request the consideration of a decision will be subject to agreement by the Executive and the draft affirmation process in the Assembly.

Mr Boylan also touched on community planning, with particular reference to planning in communities in border areas.  The councils will be responsible for the delivery of services to the community in the local government district.  There is nothing to prevent a council working on a voluntary basis with a local authority in the South, and there will not be.  He wondered to what extent the new community planning powers will compel statutory bodies not only to participate but to deliver real outcomes.  A duty is being placed on specified statutory bodies to participate and support community planning.  Community planning is, however, about councils, as the locally elected body, building relationships with the other partner organisations to identify not just what should be done but what can be done in the short term and over a longer time frame.  In doing so, there needs to be recognition that statutory bodies are answerable to those who provide their funding and determine the priorities that that funding should be used to address.

Community planning is about how the partner organisations, in delivering their functions and responsibilities, can support the objectives identified in the community plan.  It is also about the various partner organisations working to align, as far as is practicable, their short-term strategic objectives and targets.

Another point that was made, which was raised later by Dolores Kelly, was around the effective engagement of statutory partners.  I have to re-emphasise that it is about building relationships between the elected representatives and officers of councils and the key individuals in the other organisations.  It would not be appropriate for me to specify who should represent the interest of a body in the community planning process.  I know that you said that it should be the chief executive or someone high up.  It is not our place to specify that, but you would like to think that councils, councillors and council officers can develop relationships and get in people of that stature and authority.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP 6:00 pm, 1st October 2013

I thank the Minister for giving way.  Experience in local government tells us that, when you try to bring other statutory bodies together, the normal process involves the chief executive or senior officer but, as one of my colleagues said, further into the process, you are dealing with a junior clerk.  Surely there needs to be a process to ensure that that is not allowed to be the case.  I know that it will be hard to legislate for that, but surely there has to be some process.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for the intervention.  I agree with him.  It is a frustration that I, too, experienced as a councillor, particularly in the neighbourhood renewal process when other agencies were not playing their part fully and often left the Department for Social Development to carry the can.  There are mechanisms in place.  Departments still have responsibility for those involved in community planning.  So, for example, it could be up to the Education Minister to pull up someone who is not delivering in respect of education in the community planning process.  That oversight still exists.  I would like to think that, through the partnership panel, it could be raised at ministerial level if some agency is not pulling its weight and not coming up with solutions to problems.

The next contributor to the debate was my colleague Dolores Kelly, who spoke in support of the Bill.  She spoke about the importance of safeguards for minorities.  Those are essential and are at the core of the Bill, and they were in our thoughts in bringing it forward.

She focused on capacity building and asked whether there would be mandatory training for councillors.  All councillors will be encouraged to participate in the menu of training and capacity-building options that are being developed in conjunction with local government.  There will be mandatory training for councillors in some specific areas of responsibility.  For example, any councillor sitting on a planning committee will be required to undergo mandatory training in the legal framework on which planning decisions are made and in his or her role in the decision-making process.  That measure is to protect councillors as much as it is to protect the council.  There will also be mandatory training for statutory transition committees regarding the appointment of chief executives.

Mrs Kelly suggested that there should be a mandatory register of interests for councillors.  Provision will be included in the mandatory code of conduct that interests must be registered by councillors.  The register will be monitored by the clerk of the relevant council.

Mrs Kelly asked whether the bar on the dual mandate would extend to Members of the House of Lords.  I can happily say that the Bill does not extend the bar on the dual mandate to Members of the House of Lords; this is not an elected position.

Another question that was asked was how can the transfer of assets be maximised for the benefit of the whole district?  I believe that the recoupling of planning regeneration and local economic development, together with the new power of community planning, will provide local government with a real opportunity to maximise benefit for all of its ratepayers.  New councils will need to consider the important role that physical assets will play, not just those that they will inherit from their predecessor councils but those from central government.  Community planning will provide the framework for that.

Mrs Kelly raised concerns about executive arrangements and governance.  Regulations and standing orders will require that, where a council has chosen the executive model, the executive of the council is required to publish a forward work programme and a decision when it is taken.  That will ensure that the other members of the council will be aware of how the executive operates.

The next contributor was Mr Elliott.  He, quite rightly, spoke of and paid tribute to the role of councils and councillors during our troubled past.  I would like to acknowledge that and be associated with his remarks in that regard.  Moving on from the last point about training being provided to STCs in the appointment of chief executives, Mr Elliott raised a concern about the selection panels for the appointment of chief executives.  The remit of the Local Government Staff Commission has been expanded to cover STCs.  Those committees must consult with the commission on the composition of the interview panels to ensure fair representation.  Each panel will consist of: the chair of the STC; between four and seven members of the statutory transition committee; two representatives of the staff commission; and an independent assessor appointed by the staff commission.  Those three final members will be there to ensure that the appointments process is fair and equitable, but they will not have any voting rights.  Members of the interview panel and the full statutory transition committee will have mandatory training in the appointment process, so that they are fully aware of the requirements of employment law. 

Finally, the decisions to seek ratification of the full statutory transition committee by a majority of 60% is designed to ensure that no one constituent council in the statutory transition committee can overly influence the outcome of the appointment process.

Like Lord Morrow after him, Mr Elliott raised concerns about the timing of the Bill, and whether it must be passed before the elections.  If the Bill is not passed prior to the elections, could MLAs, MPs and MEPs, stand for election in the 2014 elections?  As I mentioned earlier, elections are an excepted matter; however, the Secretary of State will bring forward legislation within the next few weeks to move the date of the election to 2014.  It is not essential for this Bill to be in place prior to the elections to enable the elections to take place; however, it would be very desirable for the Bill to have received Royal Assent prior to the elections, so that the new governance arrangements and ethical standards framework will apply as soon as the new councils are elected.  Whether the dual mandate provisions will apply will depend on when the Bill receives Royal Assent.

Mr Elliott asked how costs for transferring functions would be identified.  Each Department will be responsible, both for the costs of transferring functions and for identifying the basis on which the costs will be apportioned across each council area.  The transfer of functions working group is commissioning a due diligence exercise to validate the information provided by each Department.  That third-party verification of costs will provide reassurance that the settlement is fair and equitable.

Mr Elliott is of the opinion that some of the language in the Bill in relation to the code of conduct is permissive rather than mandatory.  In relation to when the code will apply, the Bill specifies that the Department may issue a code.  Yes, the Bill does state that the Department may issue a code.  I can assure you that the Department intends to issue a code.  The Bill also provides that the Department cannot issue a code unless a draft of it has been laid before, and approved by, the Assembly.  The Department will be bringing the code to the Assembly after the Bill receives Royal Assent.  The Bill also states that the code must specify the principles that will govern councillors' conduct.

Again, the qualified majority vote was raised.  Mr Elliott flagged up the provision in the legislation to amend the 80% and asked for what reasons that might change.  The enabling power that I am taking to alter the percentage will be used only if there is clear evidence in the future that that level results in councils being unable to progress business effectively.

On governance, forms of governance and a permitted form of governance, it will be for each council and the parties represented on it to decide whether it wishes to use a committee system or the executive arrangements that we have already discussed.  The regulation that will specify the function that may be the responsibility of the executive will be drafted on a uniform basis and will apply to all councils.  The establishment of executive arrangements will not prevent a council from establishing committees for the discharge of other functions.

Mr Elliott and, again, Lord Morrow raised the question of why a chairperson or vice chairperson of a council could not be a member of an executive, if a council chooses to adopt that style of governance arrangement.  The proposed executive of a council will be a significant aspect of the political decision-making structure.  The chairman or mayor and the vice-chairperson are appointed annually as the most senior civic representative of the council as a whole.  I do not consider that it would be appropriate for a councillor who holds that position to also be directly involved in the political decision-making structure.  The operation of executive arrangements here will be somewhat different from those in place in England, where there is provision for a directly elected mayor who acts as the chair of the new executive.

Lord Morrow made a very welcome contribution to the debate.  He described this as a hefty piece of legislation and referred to the work that had been done in Dungannon and south Tyrone, where there has not been a rate increase in four years.  I am sure that lots would like to learn from that and, indeed, replicate it.  He, like Mr Elliott, paid tribute to the work of councils over the years.  He asked if there was a legal position and, if so, what it was, and  whether there was a statutory obligation on councils to have reserves.  The Department issued guidance on reserves, setting a recommended limit of between 5% and 7·5% of their operating budget.  However, that is not a statutory requirement.  The current level of reserves in local government is just over £84 million, of which around £28 million has been earmarked.  It is for each council to determine its own level of debt.  However, the local government auditor will consider debt levels in each council to ensure that no council goes beyond its ability to service its debts.  I think that £0·5 billion was the amount mentioned for current debts in local government, but it amounts to approximately £495 million — so it was close.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP 6:15 pm, 1st October 2013

I thank the Minister for giving way.  On this point around reserves, there is some misunderstanding in relation to whether a council has a statutory obligation to have reserves in place.  I am asking the Minister a question, but I am not demanding an answer here today.  Does he agree that it would be advisable for councils to have reserves for contingency situations?  It seems strange that there is no statutory obligation on a council to have those reserves.  Does he agree that they should have?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I agree that it would be sensible and prudent for councils to have reserves for use in contingencies or emergencies.

Like others before and after him, Lord Morrow spoke about the importance of community planning and of avoiding the potential isolation of rural communities and the difficulties in planning for disparate communities within the new boundaries.  The framework and the guidance will support the development of local area plans within a council's community plan.  The community plan must take into account the needs of all areas of a new council.

He also touched on the role of elected representatives in community planning.  Councillors will be the key drivers in the community planning process.  I understand his point about other public representatives who were not necessarily elected having similar if not greater rights than councillors in some bodies at the moment.

Lord Morrow asked why a bar was being placed on being a councillor if a person already holds the elected position of MLA, MP or MEP.  I have been asking that question of my officials over the past week because there is a human rights argument for council employees.  I thought that the idea was that we are not human; I do not know whether that means that we are superhuman or subhuman.

The dual mandate of a councillor who is also an MLA could cause potential conflicts of interest in decision-making whereby the Assembly may wish to set a policy direction that is at odds with the view of local government.  The main political parties in Northern Ireland have either pledged to end the practice by 2015 or indicated that they will take a phased approach as the most suitable way to address the issue.

Executive colleagues have given their support to a bar on dual mandates being included in the Bill.  It would seem appropriate to resolve the issue of dual mandates in the context of the move to a reduced number of councils with additional roles and functions, as is planned for in the Bill.  We have obtained legal advice on whether the bar on dual mandates breached human rights legislation, and it does not.

Lord Morrow also asked for some clarity on the circumstances under which the public and the press might be excluded from council meetings.  The provisions that apply to councils are over 40 years old, and it is undoubtedly time that they were updated.  There have been recent complaints in some areas that councils have misused the provisions of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 to exclude the public and the press.  It is, of course, appropriate that the public and the press are excluded when confidential matters or matters of a certain nature, particularly those that relate to a specific individual, are being discussed.  The new provisions set out more precisely the circumstances under which that can occur in the future.  Those provisions can be looked at in detail during the Bill's Committee Stage to ensure that a robust framework is in place.

Mr Milne asked questions about the partnership panel.  My officials will be working with the Northern Ireland Local Government Association to develop the procedures for the operation of the panel and to determine how partnership working can best be delivered.  He also asked questions, as did other Members, about the new complaints framework, how much it would cost, and who would pay for the work of the commissioner of complaints.

The October 2009 PricewaterhouseCoopers economic appraisal of local government service delivery gave indicative costs for the proposed new ethical standards framework of £800,000:  £50,000 for each of the new councils and £250,000 for additional resources and the commissioner's office.

It is estimated that the total cost of the revised framework will be £380,000.  The Department has put in place arrangements to provide funding for the initial set-up costs, and I have included provisions that councils will pay for the yearly costs incurred by the commissioner's office.

Ian McCrea spoke about community planning and the need for it to be focused at a local level.  Community planning provides the opportunity to better link regional and local priorities, with councils, Departments and statutory bodies working together to deliver those priorities for people on the ground, which is the most important point.  I think that I dealt with Mr McCrea's other points when dealing with points made by other Members.

Alasdair McDonnell spoke in support of the Bill, but not without reservation.  He said that in order to have people's full confidence, councils must reflect and respect their wishes. That was a very true and very appropriate contribution.  Importantly, Dr McDonnell said that bad history must not be allowed to repeat itself, and he was not the only person to say that.  Members who spoke in opposition to the Bill also said that, and we all have a duty to ensure that that does not happen.

Basil McCrea asked why we were introducing the Bill and said that it appeared that we were trying to devolve dysfunctionality.  I certainly hope that that is not the case, and it is definitely not my intention.  I hope that we are devolving power and authority, and the ability to be creative, make solutions and better serve the needs of people on the ground.  Local government does that better than the Assembly.

The same Member asked questions about flag flying — I will come to that later — and the selection of chief executives, which I think I addressed.  Those are significant issues.  There is a fear out there and in here — I heard it today, and where I did not hear it, I sensed it — that an abuse of power by a majority, whatever majority that might be, will dictate those very important issues in the respective councils. 

Basil McCrea also expressed concerns about the number of councils and asked what the rationale was for that number.  The previous Executive settled on 11 councils, because it was believed that 11 struck a measured and reasonable balance between minimising the range of variance that exists between councils, including population and rating income, and promoting and strengthening the links between councils and their communities.  That decision was supported by the current Executive.

Basil and Ian McCrea raised concerns about some councils taking on the debt burden of others.  On April 1 2015, all assets and liabilities of existing councils will move to the newly formed 11 councils.  Those will include debts and reserves, and that is why I have introduced expenditure controls on existing councils, whereby significant spend will have to be agreed by the relevant STC.  That is also why the Bill will strengthen controls on borrowing and the use of reserves by existing councils and the new councils operating in shadow mode.

Both Mr McCreas and Cathal Boylan sought detail on the functions that will transfer.  The Executive, when agreeing the package of functions, also agreed that the relevant Ministers should provide details of the staff and resources that would transfer within that function.  My Department has received baseline information from each Department that will transfer functions.  The information submitted provides details of the resources, budgets, staff and assets attached to the package of functions that will transfer to local government.  Work is under way to undertake a detailed due diligence review of the baseline information provided. 

My Department is working closely with DFP to develop a mechanism to transfer the budgets relating to transferring functions to councils with minimum bureaucracy.  It is intended that that is done through a technical amendment to rating legislation, which would ensure that the commitment to transfer functions on a rates-neutral basis at point of transfer is met.  I intend to propose an amendment at Consideration Stage to implement that.

Peter Weir made a very authoritative contribution and subsequent interventions.  That is not surprising, given his experience on the Committee and on the various other panels and committees that he outlined he served on.  He welcomed the independent complaints procedure and spoke of the governance issues.  Drawing again on his experience, he thought that it was right to have a choice and that one size does not fit all — different areas and different councils will propose different methods that they will be more comfortable with. 

He also spoke about the need to protect minorities and said that the correct balance must be struck between the qualified majorities and protecting the minorities and allowing councils to do their business.  He used the term, "gridlock" and said that it was vital that the proposed legislation, although it protects minorities, is not abused to the extent that it causes gridlock in councils and stops councils' good work being done.  However, as Mr Weir suggested, we need to examine in Committee how best to move that forward.  As I said to Ms Lo, I look forward to working with the Committee at and through the next stage of the Bill to improve it in any way that we can.

Mr Weir asked how we would ensure appropriate representation on the partnership panel.  It will be for each individual council to nominate a member to represent its interests at the partnership panel's meetings.  It is not for the Minister to determine that, although the Department will be responsible for confirming the appointment.  Attendance at the meetings will be open to all Ministers.  However, it is anticipated that actual attendance will depend on the items that are tabled for discussion.  Provision is made for the First Minister and deputy First Minister, acting jointly, to nominate Ministers or junior Ministers to attend particular meetings of the panel if they consider it appropriate. 

He also asked whether my Department would be able to block a council's nomination for its representation on the partnership panel.  Again, however, it will be for the individual council and its members to decide who should represent their interests on the partnership panel.  My Department's role is simply to confirm that nominated councillor's appointment. 

Stewart Dickson spoke of past bad practice and of the hope that lessons had been learned.  He spoke of the importance of the code of conduct and lamented the fact that he thought that annual improvement reports were focused too much on financial performance and not enough on other aspects of a council's performance.  The improvement plan will look at all aspects of improvement, not just at financial matters, and there is a clear link between community planning objectives and performance improvement in the delivery of services.  He expressed the concern that council officers might "go native".  In addition to the code of conduct for councillors, there will be a code of conduct for officers to ensure that all those working in local government will be clear on their respective roles and responsibilities.  The code of conduct for officers is being developed through the local government reform joint forum.

My party colleague Mr Maginness spoke of the proposed executive model, which is one of the choices that is available for the governance of the new councils.

He felt that the scrutiny role of the Executive that would be given to councillors could lead to a healthier political environment.  As regards control of councils, he was wary of Departments acting in a Big Brother fashion.  It is certainly not the intention of the Bill for this, or any, Department to constrain.  However, it is necessary that we have oversight of councils if individual councils ignore government policy.

Mr McGlone spoke of the importance of building trust and reconciliation.  Mr Maginness asked why the provisions relating to the control of councils were being extended to all Departments.  With the new functions being transferred to local government, it was agreed with the transferring Departments that it would be helpful if the supervisory powers in the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 were made available to all Northern Ireland Departments.  It is intended that those powers will be used in only extreme circumstances.  Those are powers of last resort when a council is in default.

With reference to the partnership panel, Mr Maginness queried why, when we are meant to be streamlining public administration, we are creating a new body.  The establishment of the partnership panel is about providing a structured forum to enable Ministers and elected representatives to work together at political level to identify how we can best deliver improved outcomes for our community.  It will be a forum for discussion and will provide an opportunity for the exchange of advice in both directions.  The elected representatives on the panel will report to the councils they represent.  Ministers may wish to raise relevant issues with the Executive or, through their departmental officials, with the relevant Committee.

John McCallister expressed his opposition to the Bill and reiterated concerns raised by quite a few Members, even those in favour of the Bill but particularly concerns raised by his colleague, Mr McCrea.  He queried the transfer of planning to local government.  The House has already confirmed its agreement to the transfer of planning to councils.  The Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, which was prepared by the Department and received Royal Assent on 4 May 2011, provides the legislative basis for the reform of the Northern Ireland planning system and its transfer to councils.  The Act also gives effect to the transfer to councils of the majority of planning functions and decision-making responsibilities for local development plans, development management and planning enforcement.

This will make planning more locally accountable, giving local politicians the opportunity to shape the areas in which they were elected.  Decision-making processes will be improved by bringing in enhanced understanding of the needs and aspirations of local communities.  Many provisions in the Act will commence on the transfer of planning functions to local councils in 2015.

Like others before him, Mr McCallister asked whether the 11-council model was the appropriate model.  It is no secret to anyone in the House that it was not my party's preferred model.  However, models for each of the seven-, 11- and 15-council configurations were consulted on.

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin 6:30 pm, 1st October 2013

I thank the Member for giving way.  Will he clarify what his party's position was in its 2011 manifesto?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  Let us not get into manifestos.  Let us stay on the Second Stage of the Bill. [Interruption.] Order.  Let us not have debate, wherever Members may be sitting in the Chamber.  Allow the Minister to continue.  Let us not get into a debate around manifestos.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP 6:45 pm, 1st October 2013

Will the Minister give way?  It is not about manifestos. [Laughter.]

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I am grateful to the Minister.  Does his point about not supporting the council model not reinforce our point that he is actually devolving functions when he is against the model for which he is legislating?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

If I am not mistaken, I said that we had not been in favour of the 11-council model.  The seven-, 11- and 15-council configurations were consulted on.  The previous Executive's decisions on the future shape of local government, which were announced in March 2008, included rationalising the 26 local government districts to create 11 new districts, along the lines of model 11B.  The alternative models, which would have created seven and 15 new councils — models 11A and 11C — were rejected by the former Executive.  That decision is supported by the current Executive.  The House, by agreeing the Local Government (Boundaries) Act (Northern Ireland) 2008, agreed the 11-council model.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for giving way.  On Fermanagh District Council, I know that there was considerable opposition by Sinn Féin members to it being fused with any other council —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  I must insist that the Member takes his seat.  We really must not get into a discussion on individual councils, past or present.  We really need to get back to the Second Stage of the Local Government Bill.  I say that to all Members.  Allow the Minister to continue.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you for that, Mr Speaker.  I thank Members for their attempted interventions.  All day, we have tried to avoid getting into specific disputes in specific areas.  I am content that I have come this far without doing that.  I do not intend to do it now. 

The House further confirmed its support for an 11-council model when it affirmed the Local Government (Boundaries) Order (Northern Ireland) 2012.

John McCallister expressed concerns, as did some others, about the costs of reform.  The PricewaterhouseCoopers economic appraisal of local government service delivery that was carried out on behalf of and published by the Department in October 2009 indicated that, under the preferred option, namely transformation with regional collaboration, implementation of the local government reform programme could cost up to £118 million over five years.  That is against projected savings of £438 million over 25 years.  One of the finance working group's key tasks is to develop an up-to-date and accurate analysis of the full costs and benefits of the reform implementation programme.  To do that, local government has developed a template and accompanying guidelines for individual councils and transition committees to accurately establish the costs of reform.  The returns are being examined and analysed to validate the data.  That will provide an up-to-date estimate of the full cost of implementing reform of local government. 

Mr Allister lamented the fact that we did not go with the 15-council model.  I have addressed how we arrived at the 11-council model.  He conveyed an interesting theory as to why that was the case.  He queried the devolving of power to an executive in the new governance arrangements.  Regulations will specify the functions that may be the responsibility of the executive.  It will be for a council to determine which functions are devolved.  There will also be a range of functions that will be discharged by committees.  He queried which decisions would be subject to a qualified majority vote.  Building on my commitment to ensure that the interests of minority communities are protected, the following decisions will be specified as requiring a qualified majority vote:  the political governance arrangements to be operated by the council; the method to be used for the sharing of positions of responsibility; the method to be used for ensuring that the membership of a committee reflects the political balance on the council; major capital projects; programmes that impact across a number of district electoral areas; and, in response to a legitimate call-in, on adverse-impact grounds.

Mr Allister asked me a direct question about whether I am minded to make regulations on flag-flying.  No, I am not minded to make regulations on flag-flying.  I am flagging now, unfortunately.  The Bill deals with improving services to local people and improving local government, and I do not see any merit in attaching regulations on flag-flying to do that.  There are other fora where that can be discussed and, hopefully, resolved, one of which is the political reference group, to which I know that the Member has previously been invited, although I am led to believe that he has not attended.  However, its next meeting is tomorrow, and I would be more than happy to see him and any Member from any party there.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I also asked the Minister whether he is minded to make any regulations under clause 42 that would bring any council decisions on the issue of flags under the ambit of qualified majority.  Can he answer that question?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question.  At present, I am not minded to do so.  I am happy to see how discussions go in other fora.  I referred to the political reference group.  We also have an ongoing process through the Haass talks, from which I am hopeful of an outcome.  These are very serious issues, and the Member is right to raise them — the issue of flags, that is, perhaps not the flags themselves.  At Committee Stage, the Member will have an opportunity to bring amendments and suggestions to me on how we may progress the issue or otherwise.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am happy enough not to give way now, Mr Speaker.  The finish line is in sight.

The final contributor this evening was Mr Nesbitt.  He raised concerns about the costs of the Commissioner for Complaints post.  The intention to ask local government to pay those costs was discussed and agreed with the commissioner’s office.  My officials are in ongoing discussions on the detail of the payment method.  He asked other, more specific questions about Dr Frawley, and I will get back to him in writing on those.

In concluding, I again thank Members for their contributions to the debate and for comments made or concerns expressed regarding the Bill.  I also take this opportunity to emphasise the benefits that the Bill will provide and the advantages that it will create for local government and the communities that it serves.  It will provide our 11 new councils with the powers to be stronger, more creative and more effective in delivering services to their citizens.  They will be able to imaginatively produce initiatives to boost their local economy and create jobs, protect the environment and enhance their citizens’ well-being.  Community planning will enable councils to work in partnership with other public service providers to develop and implement a vision for the economic, social and environmental well-being of the district.  For the first time, sharing council positions of responsibility across political parties and independents will be enshrined in law.  The public will now have more access to council meetings and documents.  A mandatory code of conduct for councillors will be introduced that will promote high standards.  Establishing a partnership panel made up of Executive Ministers and elected representatives from councils will enable the two tiers of government to discuss matters of mutual interest.

I see the Bill as being a valuable and significant step in our journey to modernise local government. 

It will impact on every aspect of local government operation and provide the opportunity for councils to lead the improvements and the delivery of high-quality services that will benefit their communities.  It will shape the future for strong, modern, community-focused local government in Northern Ireland that will have the opportunity to deliver improved outcomes for everyone.  I commend the Bill to you.

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Ayes 64; Noes 12.