Northern Ireland Grand Committee
Tuesday 4 February 2003
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Strategic Investment and
Regeneration of Sites (Northern Ireland)
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): On a point of order, Mr. Benton. It is my pleasure to sit under your chairmanship. My point of order is not grave, but it is something of which the House of Commons authorities should be aware. I have received, in the usual way, selection cards to serve on Committees. This afternoon, I have been selected to serve on this Committee and, simultaneously, in Room 8, on a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation in respect of a Northern Ireland planning matter. I know that we are all working different hours and that we might find ourselves under pressure to be in two places at once—we might even want to be—but I have been selected to do so. As both cards come from the House of Commons authorities, I am not pressing the matter as a grievance or blaming anybody; it might have originated in my party's Whip's Office.
The Chairman: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's dilemma, but it is not strictly a matter for me or for the Committee. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's comments will be noted.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): On a point of order, Mr. Benton. It is slightly rare, but I find myself having to be in four places at once—on a Standing Committee considering a Bill, in this Committee, debating House of Lords reform and, on top of that, going back to my constituency to prepare for government. If we are to make the new hours work, because that was the will of the House, so be it. However, the appropriate authorities should know that the degree to which our scrutiny of Government policy is compromised suggests that perhaps we should meet after 7.30 pm. I ask that you convey the fact that scrutiny is being seriously compromised as a consequence of the new hours.
The Chairman: I am afraid that, once again, that is not a matter for me as Chairman of this Committee. However, I am sure that the comments will be noted.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): On a point of order, Mr. Benton. I do not want to prolong this interesting conversation, but if the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) were elected in Northern Ireland, he would find that he got on to only one Committee, and then only after a terrible battle with five other Members of the House. I am very glad that this is a Committee on which I sit by right and not because of a little white card.
The Chairman: May I remind hon. Members that the debate may continue until 5 pm? I have no power
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to limit speeches, but I ask hon. Members to try to be brief so that everybody can speak.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Strategic Investment and Regeneration of Sites (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I begin by acknowledging that the Order-in-Council procedure is not ideal. It would, however, have been wholly wrong to let Northern Ireland drift into legislative limbo following the unwelcome suspension of the Assembly. Flowing from the Executive's programme for government, the Assembly had a substantial legislative programme in train that was due to be completed in March, in advance of dissolution for fresh elections. I would be the first to acknowledge that completing the programme has made for some difficult decisions and has imposed a challenging timetable. We hope that soon scrutiny at Westminster will no longer be necessary and that the devolved institutions are up and running again. As hon. Members will be aware, intensive efforts are being made to effect that.
As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), made clear in introducing the suspension legislation, if direct rule were to continue we should certainly seek to provide fuller opportunities for scrutiny. I recognise the comments on that of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, several members of which are here today.
None the less, I hope that it will be acknowledged that we have responded substantially to the perfectly legitimate views of hon. Members. We have, for example, in response to the Select Committee's comments, sought to provide more information about proceedings on orders in the Assembly. We have been willing to arrange debates in Committee—today's and another on Thursday on the draft Budget (Northern Ireland) Order—which will offer an opportunity to all Northern Ireland Members to comment on all matters of previously devolved business. Those sittings will also enable a further Question Time.
The Strategic Investment and Regeneration of Sites Bill was agreed by the Executive and introduced into the Northern Ireland Assembly on 30 September 2002. Before suspension, it did not receive its Second Reading, and some have said that the Bill would not have passed Second Stage in the Assembly. However, that is speculation; the fact is that the Bill had been agreed by the Executive and commanded—and still does—the full support of the two largest parties in the Assembly.
After the publication of the draft Order in Council, a series of consultation events were held to allow interested parties to express their views on it. Those were attended by political parties, relevant district councils, business representatives, trade unions and other interested organisations. Several written submissions were also received. I know from
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meetings that I have had that not all the Northern Ireland parties support all the provisions of the order. However, I firmly believe that this legislation is necessary and that it will be of enormous benefit to the people of Northern Ireland. I should like to speak about some of the main concerns that were suggested to me during the consultation.
Lembit Öpik: Before the Minister goes into the detail of the order, will he say whether he believes that most Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly supported the order?
Mr. Pearson: The Executive had agreed to progress it; it had not, however, reached its Second Stage. It was clear that the two major parties supported the Bill, as did the Executive as a whole.
Rev. Ian Paisley: I remind the Minister that the two parties that he says are the two major parties do not have a majority in the Assembly. Many propositions came before the Assembly that had the backing of the Executive but were defeated. Two very important matters of agriculture had the backing of the Executive, but both were defeated on the Floor. It would be wrong for the Minister to conclude that the majority in the Assembly agreed to this Bill.
Mr. Pearson: I appreciate the hon. Member's point. I tried not to speculate on what the decision would have been on Second Reading. I merely point out that the Executive included this Bill in their draft programme for government and that it was supported by the four parties in the Executive.
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): The point made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) is strictly speaking correct in that the Ulster Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party combined did not have a majority in the Assembly. However, the Minister is perfectly correct in saying that the Bill was endorsed by the Executive and that the parties that met in the Executive did have a majority. Furthermore, a party outside the Executive—the Alliance party—had also declared its support for the legislation. In the light of that, I find the tone of the intervention by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire rather curious.
Mr. Pearson: No doubt the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Benton, in order to explain.
The important measure that we are considering takes forward the reinvestment and reform initiative, which was announced in May last year, and which was jointly developed under devolution by the Government and the devolved Administration. The order establishes a Strategic Investment Board, which will have a key role in helping to develop a new and innovative approach towards infrastructure investment in Northern Ireland. It also provides a menu of options for making progress with work on the regeneration of the former military and security assets that are to be transferred to the Northern Ireland Executive, free of charge, under the initiative.
The order is beneficial in several ways. It will help the Administration to take a long-term strategic approach to investing in the infrastructure of
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Northern Ireland. It offers an opportunity to turn symbols of conflict and division into symbols of prosperity and regeneration. It will help to bring about a profound and lasting difference in the strategic provision of public service infrastructure, ensuring that the resources available are put to optimum use, and that maximum investment returns are achieved.
The Strategic Investment Board is needed to drive through the major acceleration of investment in Northern Ireland's infrastructure that the former First Minister and Deputy First Minister rightly identified as essential to Northern Ireland's future prosperity. The budget that I was privileged to announce on 11 December, and which the Grand Committee will debate on Thursday, contained news of a capital programme of about £2 billion. That is a major increase, and it is vital that the investment is spent wisely. The board will have a key role in advising the Administration on the development of a coherent strategic investment programme. It will also work with bodies that are carrying out major strategic investment projects; the work will include providing research, consultancy and other services.
The Strategic Investment Board will bring a new strategic approach—and one that I hope and believe will be highly innovative—to managing and financing infrastructure programmes across all Departments. It will advise on the new source of borrowing provided for under the reinvestment and reform initiative, and make the best use of private and public finance to meet local needs.
The board will work with and on behalf of all Departments, to carry out infrastructure programmes in a unique and strategic way, rather than thinly spreading expertise across all 11 Departments. The order requires every public body to facilitate the work of the board and to co-operate with it. It also requires them to have regard to any advice given to them by the board.
The SIB's focus will be wider than procurement. It will also bring expertise and management focus to the public sector, drawing on best practice from elsewhere, but tailored to the Northern Ireland context. In a change to the original Bill, the Strategic Investment Board will be established as a company limited by guarantee and owned by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. That will provide greater flexibility in taking the investment strategy forward, and will make it possible to attract staff of the right calibre.
I am satisfied that, as a non-departmental public body, and a company limited by guarantee, the SIB will be fully accountable for its activities. It will be audited independently and the Comptroller and Auditor General will have full inspection rights and full value-for-money powers.