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I wonder whether the Minister can reassure me over one or two articles. Article 3 relates to the repeal of licensing provisions relating to horticultural produce. Can the Minister reassure the House that public standards will be maintained?
Article 5 relates to the local control of auctions. Will the public be protected adequately from the scourge of bogus auctions? In Article 10, of course one welcomes a sensible, efficient, inexpensive appeal procedure. Can the Minister give the assurance that there will be no adverse effect on fair employment, in particular, the fair treatment of female employees?
I welcome the local option being introduced into Northern Ireland in respect of betting on Sundays. We did quite well with local option in a different context--drinking on Sundays--in Wales for many, many years, as I am sure my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris is willing to testify.
Deregulation is not the only answer to these problems. There is of course a strong public service ethos, particularly in Northern Ireland. The note of caution that I should like to sound is that contracting out/deregulation may be superficially attractive as an aspect of political dogma, but it sometimes inflicts upon the public service ethos wounds which are not readily cured.
Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for her introduction of the order. It is a bit of a rag-bag, is it not? It reminds me of the reported remarks of Winston Churchill when faced with a mess on his plate:
The horrors of BSE, which were due, at least in part, to the removal of appropriate regulations, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said, should make us look at each point of removal rather carefully, especially where consumer safety is involved. Like him, I should like to press the Minister on the Horticultural Act (Northern Ireland) 1966. The order removes the need for licences under that Act. The Minister failed to mention the fact that these licences are currently required only by horticulturists who produce more than a tonne of horticultural product a year--we are talking about fairly large enterprises--and that the licence deals exclusively with the simple and basic matter of hygiene. I wonder whether she is satisfied that this is not a safety barrier unnecessarily removed.
There is then, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, also said, the repeal of the Auctions (Local Control) Act (Northern Ireland) 1957. That Act gives local councils the right to license properties in which auctions are to be held, and allows them to refuse to license properties owned by people with convictions for an offence involving fraud or dishonesty. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how local councils in Northern Ireland will be able to protect themselves against that type of fraudulent provenance of an application once that provision has been repealed.
Then there is, of great interest to all of us who are beer drinkers, the Weights and Measures (Northern Ireland) Order 1981. Interestingly, that is an order which was brought in by this Government in the first place. So, it is--if I dare use the words--a U-turn. The Government have changed their mind about the froth on the top of the beer. I happen to agree with them. It should stop short
Finally, contracting out is a sensitive issue in Northern Ireland for the reason that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, gave. First, as the Minister knows well, the private sector is not always strong in Northern Ireland. When a service is contracted out, we must be sure that there is proper competition; that there is no fix of the sort that used to disfigure public life in Northern Ireland; and that genuinely competitive options are available in a particular service. At the same time, we should be careful about wantonly destroying the infrastructure of public service that exists in Northern Ireland.
I hope that in the application of their powers to contract out in Northern Ireland the Government will be extremely careful. I do not propose to do anything but sit mute when we come to vote on this order.
Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Williams of Mostyn and Lord Holme of Cheltenham, for their contributions to the debate. First, perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that as Minister for Agriculture I am well aware of the effect of BSE on Northern Ireland industry. I assure him that the current difficulties in the beef industry are not the result of deregulation policy but of a combination of factors, the majority of which resulted from economic changes. I hope that we can resolve the problem in the near future.
I share the noble Lords' respect for the high standard of public service in Northern Ireland. There can be no doubt about the commitment of civil servants to the governance of the Province. The contracting out orders represent tools for providing high quality, value-for-money services which everyone has a right to expect. If we save money on administration, we can spend it on the services. That must be to the benefit of the people.
Market testing has shown that the Civil Service has a high degree of competency, as it has won many of the bids. It must be satisfying to prove that one is right. Both noble Lords expressed some concern over horticultural deregulation. I suspect that neither noble Lord has such a horticultural establishment. If they did they would be pleased that they need no longer complete annual licensing applications or pay annual fees. They are not measures which should put the health of the industry, which is so important, at risk.
The fact that we are not removing powers from local authorities regarding auctions is well proven by the fact that in 39 years no local authority has considered it necessary to use the powers. The views of the RUC and the Association of Local Authorities were sought and both were content that the Act should be repealed. As Minister not only for agriculture but also for women issues in the Province, I am aware that contracting out may have a detrimental effect on employment opportunities for women. The Government are looking seriously at the recommendations of the Equal Opportunities Commission and will report soon. We are completely committed to ensuring the delivery of services to the public on a non-discriminatory basis and to securing equality of opportunity and equity of treatment for all
It gives me no problem to say that if one looks seriously at a difficulty and takes a different view one comes forward with a different view. I am pleased to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Holme, that we do not have people standing around in bars measuring the froth on beer, which could not be considered productive to the growth of the Northern Ireland economy which we all wish to see.
The order is straightforward. We recognise that there is no point in having unused legislation on the statute book, and as the noble Lord said, that it is better to cull the duplication of legislation. I commend the order to your Lordships.