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Mr. William Ross: Surely one of the best ways to deal with over-zealous public officials is to ensure that they are liable for costs, unlike the case that he mentioned in Scotland.

Mr. Steen: Absolutely--the hon. Gentleman is right. The trouble is that, where the local authority is penalised, the individuals who in turn are penalised are council tax payers, not individual councillors. That is the problem.

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We do not have a model appeal system that works, and we need one. All we have is a consultative draft statutory instrument for a model appeal system. Nothing has been done.

Deregulation is, of course, right. We all support it. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, on the Floor of the House, said to me in answer to a question on 25 May 1995 that deregulation is at the heart of our economic strategy. He was absolutely right. Unfortunately, it is not working.

There seems to be no willingness to tackle the real issues, which are health and safety legislation, fire regulations, food hygiene and employment law. No official and no Minister will take the risk of repealing any legislation involving safety, security or hygiene, in case something goes wrong.

It is understandable that officials cannot recommend to a Minister that he should repeal something that bears on hygiene, safety or security in the event that things might go wrong. An official's job would be on the line, as would the Minister's. All the way up the ministerial ranks, and all the way down Whitehall, more and more rules and regulations are being introduced on health and safety, fire controls, food hygiene and employment law. At least those involved feel safer doing that.

I am anxious that the order before us does not lead Northern Ireland on the route that I have described. I am trying to give Northern Ireland a warning that what happened in England might happen there.

I am all for deregulation--it is a tremendous idea--but it needs to work better. I hope that Members who represent Northern Ireland, who are in the Chamber in great force, will ensure that the Government do not introduce an order that they cannot implement.

11.18 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) has reinforced my opposition to the consequences of the order. There is considerable and justified opposition to many of its provisions among the community in Northern Ireland. The order is at variance with the wishes of many local groupings and interests.

In introducing the order, the Minister said that he had received 18 representations. He did not say--perhaps he will correct me if I am wrong--that only four were in favour of it. The other 14 were opposed. That is a fairly strong indictment of the course of action proposed.

The consequences of this form of legislation and the continuing process of privatisation, agentisation, or what is now called, euphemistically, in Northern Ireland "externalisation", are diminutions of democratic accountability within the present system. That seems to be at variance with the exhortations of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and other Ministers that we should be trying to enhance democratic accountability. The order flies in the face of all that.

There are differences of requirement in the society of Northern Ireland when set against requirements in Great Britain. I listened to the arguments in favour of harmonisation, but there are many instances where the system does not lend itself to literal translation of GB to NI. Health and education are only two examples of that.

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The introduction to the deregulation section refers to necessary protection for consumers, employers and the environment.

A most startling omission is employees. It is mainly employees who will suffer when protection is removed. It is significant that employees are not mentioned at all in the introduction, and we may therefore conclude that they are being ignored. Additionally, part of the order's purpose is to remove consumer protection at a time when such protection needs to be enhanced, especially in horticultural food processing.

The deregulation provisions are of particular interest. I am no expert on the subtext of heads on pints of beer. The only thing I can conclude is that I do know what happens when several beers produce a head, which I carefully avoid. I am also confused by the fact that a legal duty to provide good measure has been totally removed. It is left simply, shall we say, to the good graces of the innkeeper or proprietor to provide not too much gas and a much greater property of liquid. I do not know how the innkeeper will respond to that, but I suspect that he will take a close look at what is gas and what is liquid.

Sport on Sunday is a contentious issue in Northern Ireland. The provision on that seems to have been just thrown in, without much consultation with the people and parties of Northern Ireland. I will probably be sat upon at home for hinting a warning about this. The Downpatrick race club, the oldest race club in Ireland, is anxious to be able to facilitate racing on a Sunday, so perhaps I am doing that community a disservice, but, in general terms, circumscription regarding keeping Sunday a separate day is not well removed without greater consultation.

Moving on quickly to taxi drivers, I simply repeat what was said. I cannot for the life of me see why people in charge of other people's lives in a public service vehicle should not have a more meaningful and exhaustive test than is provided by the order, which removes the current requirement.

The Minister made much of the cost savings that would occur in many of the order's sectors. The model appeal mechanism has been referred to. The hon. Member for South Hams said that a bureaucracy and costing system would be created by the necessity to police, as it were, the procedures on behalf of the offended parties. I doubt whether there will be any real saving, because other sectors will have to be brought into play.

Some of the Minister's examples on the contracting-out section were selective. He referred mainly to high technology and computerisation. Certainly, it was widely known in Northern Ireland in particular that many civil servants did not have a clue how to introduce computerisation into Departments, and should have had expert advice from outside before they engaged in it, so there is bound to have been considerable saving as they did not know how to do it in the first place.

On the contracting-out section, I am surprised to find that, in relation to the incorporation of companies, I think the Minister said, and to insolvencies, the registrar of companies and the insolvency agencies could be contracted out. In any commercial terms, those are sensitive areas. Until, for instance, incorporation is complete, contracting out would be extremely dangerous. The commercial sector will be wary of the fact that the

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details, the capital involvement and the persons involved would all be available to a private firm and would not be within the confines of the Government's privacy provision. I am worried about the consequences of that.

I shall pass quickly over the contracting out of dog control, but not because it is not important. Northern Ireland is a rural area and a farming community, and it depends largely on an efficient service in that area. When that function was given to district councils, there was great dismay, but to be fair to the councils, they introduced a detailed and effective service, and it is working. The Government seem to be following the principle: "If it works, fix it." I do not think that any other service could be better than the present one, because no organisation could better the councils' activities in that respect.

On contracting out generally, in most instances, particularly in health and some other areas, the quality of the service has deteriorated. I do not think there is any dispute about that, and certainly the terms and conditions of employment have deteriorated considerably under privatisation. That is capable of absolute proof. Time prevents me from going into detail in many areas, but the issue that concerns me most is contracting out in relation to part lV, article 17, and schedule 5(5), on social and other housing benefits that are currently dispensed and administered by the Housing Executive.

That is a large area of sensitive personal information. It relates to personal, financial, medical and social details, and details on special family problems. There are even personal details, and they all contribute to the making of decisions on benefit--or, indeed, housing. It is essential that that is kept secure by the Housing Executive, which has proved beyond doubt over the years that it is capable of effectively administering such matters.

Like other hon. Members, I am also greatly concerned about article 9 and the powers given to the various Departments without the necessary overriding constraints. Most of the suggestions in the order do not find great favour with me. It is the pursuit of dogma rather than of efficiency and savings.

In that context, the people I represent would certainly oppose the implementation of most of the order, because it will inevitably lead to the exportation of earnings from Northern Ireland. Consequently, there will be a rundown in some service jobs and perhaps some smaller manufacturing jobs. We could well do without that in an area of high unemployment. For those reasons, I entirely oppose the order.

11.28 pm

Sir John Wheeler: In the remaining minutes at my disposal, I shall endeavour to deal with some of the points that have been raised in the debate, to which I listened with great interest. Perhaps I should outline the purpose of the order and reiterate how the implementation of its provisions will benefit both business and administration in Northern Ireland.

The deregulation provisions will remove unnecessary restrictions on business and open up new market areas. The contracting out provisions will widen the potential for Departments, district councils and other bodies to introduce competition and further improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of public services.

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To take up the point of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), contracting out is an enabling measure, not a requirement. I believe that local authorities and others will wish to use the provisions of the order because they will want to get the best possible value for their money while retaining accountability. I shall deal with his concern about accountability straight away because I know that other hon. Members have an interest in it.

In all cases where a function is contracted out, the body letting the contract remains both accountable and legally liable for the acts and omissions of contractors in the same way as it is at present for its own or its employees' acts or omissions. Of course, Ministers remain responsible for policy to the House. I assure the hon. Member for South Down that there is no change in accountability. Indeed, it could be argued that a well-drafted contract makes the obligations among the different parties and interests more precise. It certainly makes the contractor more vulnerable to claims in the county court and by other means than would otherwise be the case.


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