Wednesday, 25 October 2006.
The Committee met at half-past four of the clock
[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (BARONESS THOMAS OF WALLISWOOD) in the Chair.]
I have been advised that these microphones are where they are so that they can pick up a speaker’s voice when a speaker is standing. I think that I am right in saying that most people will not stand when they take part in the debate—
Oh, noble Lords do stand. Well, then, we should keep the microphones where they are and on no account move them up and down. I would not like us to interfere with the whole system by jiggling around with these delicate things, whatever they are. My instructions are to tell noble Lords not to move them up and down.
I remind Members of the Committee that, in the case of each order, the Motion before the Committee will be that the Committee do report that it has considered the order in question. I should also make it clear that the Committee is charged only to consider orders and not to approve or disapprove them. The Motion to approve will be moved in the Chamber in the usual way.
I should also remind the Committee that, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn at the earliest convenient moment after the Division Bells are rung and will resume after 10 minutes.
Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) (Order) 2006
rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.
The noble Lord said: The broad purpose of the draft Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 is to help those who have suffered so much as a result of the Troubles in the Northern Ireland over the last 40 years. The Troubles have extended over many years and had profound consequences for many thousands of people in terms of trauma, injury and the pain of bereavement. For many, the pain and suffering remain a present and daily reality.
The Government believe that victims and survivors deserve a strong voice that will draw attention to their needs and which will help to inform the future of government policy. Giving victims and survivors a strong voice is the substance of the draft order. It provides for the establishment of the position of Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. The commissioner will have a general role in promoting the interest of victims and survivors and the draft order sets out various ways in which this will be done.
The commissioner will keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of services provided for victims and survivors by statutory and voluntary organisations. He or she will have a duty to provide advice to the Secretary of State, the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly and any person or organisation involved in the provision of services. The commissioner will also be there to provide advice and information on any matters concerning the interests of victims and survivors.
The draft order provides for the appointment of the commissioner to be made by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly, and for the commissioner to work in accordance with a detailed work programme agreed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. To ensure that the work of the commissioner helps to inform future policy, provision is made for the work of the commissioner to be carried out under work programmes which will be agreed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly.
The commissioner will be under a duty to take into account the views of victims and survivors in carrying out his or her functions. Furthermore, and to ensure that their voices are heard, the commissioner will be tasked to take forward a victims and survivors forum. The commissioner will also be under a duty to publish an annual report on his or her work, and a copy of this will be laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly. A copy will be sent also to the Secretary of State.
The proposal for a draft order has been the subject of consultation and there is clear support in Northern Ireland for the concept of a commissioner. Many individuals have found the support of Mrs Bertha McDougall, who was appointed as the interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, to have been invaluable. I pay tribute to her work.
In broad terms, the draft order refers to those who have suffered bereavement or injury as a consequence of the Troubles since 1966. There is some divergence of view as to when the Troubles began, and this date has been chosen to ensure that we cover all the relevant period. I know that some concern has been expressed that the definition of “victims” should not include those involved in acts of violence. We understand these feelings and the deep hurt that many feel. The matter will no doubt resurface in today’s debate. However, having considered the issue with great care, the Government are of the view that the definition of “victims” should be as inclusive as possible if we are to move to a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland.
We wish to provide the basis for a longer-term appointment of a Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. The introduction of the order demonstrates the Government’s clear intention that victims and survivors must not be forgotten but should have a strong voice in the future. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.—(Lord Rooker.)
I thank the Minister for bringing this order before the Committee. In principle, we support it: it is a good thing to be doing. I understand that the order is designed to be very inclusive. I, too, feel that there will be some challenges to its inclusivity and to who may or may not be considered victims and survivors, as the Minister anticipated. If that is the case, will there be a form of arbitration? How would such challenges be resolved? I do not wish to be pessimistic about a proposal that is as good as this and about a matter such as victims and survivors, but I am just trying to be realistic.
I understand that the commissioner will set up a forum at some stage, which is a good idea. Will the Minister tell us, if I am not jumping the gun, what form it is expected to take, when it is expected to be set up, how it might be funded and from where the people will come to form it? I know that a report is due shortly—probably around Christmas. If I am pre-empting something, I am quite happy for the Minister to write to me.
Will the commissioner have the power to make grants? I read in the order some of the things that they will be expected to do. Will they be able to make grants to victims organisations or to victims’ families?
I sense from the legislation that the management of the commissioner by the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister or the Secretary of State will take place through the work programmes and agreement, which is almost a substitute for regulation. Will that be the case? On this occasion, it may well be better than legislation. In principle, however, my party supports the order.
It is perhaps appropriate that this Grand Committee on Northern Ireland should meet in the enhanced surroundings of the Moses Room. I hope that this augurs well for the new beginning for Northern Ireland. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome the order. At the meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in Northern Ireland this week, some concern was expressed by the people of Northern Ireland about the process of the selection of the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors—not the person, but the process. Perhaps other noble Lords will mention this later. However, I put on record our support for the order.
Victims organisations have grown greatly in Northern Ireland. There is now almost a victims industry, which may not, for a number of reasons, improve its clients’ lives in any way. There is a lot of cynicism about the value and the work of government initiatives. There is a feeling that there is too much bureaucracy and perhaps not enough feeling about the concerns of these desperate people.
We on the Liberal Democrat Benches support an overarching strategic approach to providing services to victims and survivors. That approach must be focused on victims and survivors and led by them, so that services are seen to be delivered and needs are seen to be met.
We very much support the appointment of the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. As I have said, it has been very useful to have Mrs Bertha McDougall in post as an interim commissioner since December last year. We welcome the clarification given in the Explanatory Memorandum to the order that the position of commissioner will be advertised and that the appointment will fall within the remit of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments in Northern Ireland. However, that does not appear to have taken place, as I understand it.
We believe that the commissioner should be independent of Government. An independent commissioner would help to improve communication and minimise formality, so that services can be effectively and sensitively delivered. The commissioner should be similar, in relation to independence and autonomy, to the Commissioner for Children and Young People and should be able to undertake, commission or provide financial support for research into all matters relating to victims and survivors.
I should like to make a few broader points about victims and survivors in general. I am still concerned about funding generally for victims groups. It is vital that all funding sources, processes and procedures are carefully examined and sustained. Can the Minister reassure the Committee that efforts will be made to ensure that victims groups are made aware of all sources of funding and that procedures for applying for such funding will not be overcomplicated? That is an important point.
One-to-one counselling has proved very worth while to all concerned, including those most unsure about coming forward for help and support. This whole area of training and counselling must be sustained and there must be absolute confidence that adequate funding will be there to sustain it well into the future so that someone benefiting from one-to-one counselling does not suddenly find that it ceases when he or she is in most need. This is a sensitive aid and it is vital that it is targeted properly. Time-limiting these groups is totally unacceptable and could greatly set back those in need.
This service cannot be measured. Many children and young people who have suffered in the Troubles are now, for the first time, showing the effects of the disruption and the terror that they suffered at an earlier age. The effects of losing parents or siblings, being awakened late at night, being caught in violent situations and so many other experiences have often been bottled up in self-defence and are now causing disruption and distress in a wide range of ways. How can one guess the length of counselling and support necessary for them?
Will the Minister inform the Committee whether any progress has been made on the proposal for a study to be carried out into the needs of carers who look after victims and survivors? Carers have been largely left to themselves, often in difficult circumstances. It is high time that they were provided with greater assistance.
Have the Government given any thought to the proposals made by the Alliance Party to the St Andrews talks that the British and Irish Governments should appoint an independent commission, composed of domestic and international experts, to consult, deliberate and make a series of recommendations to address outstanding issues relating to the past and its legacy and their linkage to the promotion of reconciliation? Addressing the past and its legacy is fundamental to the process of reconciliation and building a shared future. The failure to do this in a comprehensive and holistic manner is, I believe, a barrier to political progress.
Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I generally welcome this order. Before dealing with it, I should declare a possible interest, as my wife is a member of the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund, which is deeply involved in the work of supporting victims.
When the Minister replies, I would like him to go into a couple of points in a little more detail. He mentioned that the legislation provides that the commissioner is to work in accordance with the detailed work programme and that the work programme is to be drawn up and agreed with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Failing the existence of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the detailed work programme is to be drawn up in consultation with the Secretary of State, which is the position at the moment. Therefore, I imagine that the Secretary of State and those who advise him have some ideas about what might be in a work programme. I notice that there are references to a detailed work programme, which implies that through it there will be fairly close control of the programme of the commissioner. I would be surprised if there are not already some ideas on that matter in the system. I am sure that the Committee would be interested to hear from the Minister on those matters.
It would be helpful if we had more detail on the proposal for a victims and survivors forum. It has been difficult for some victims and victims groups to find themselves in close proximity to others. A forum could be problematic and might be divisive, so we need to think and consult about it more carefully. I will be grateful if the Minister can give us some insight into the thinking on that matter.
The general question of funding has been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond. It is a sensitive matter, and I know from my former role that victims groups in my own patch had genuine reasons for feeling that they were not getting a fair deal under the present arrangements. Instead of finding officialdom helpful, they found that it was unhelpful and that it put obstacles in their path. Those may have been isolated examples, but we must be aware that some groups have reasonable grounds for feeling that they did not get a fair deal. We would not want to see that situation continue.
There is also the question of policy in general. This is not the first time that there has been a victims commissioner. Many years ago, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield was appointed to consider the question of provision for victims. He produced a report that, until now, has provided the bedrock for policy on these matters. This should have been explored further in the exposition of policy. Do the Government intend to reopen the issues that Bloomfield considered and advised on and to recast policy in these matters, or does Bloomfield continue to be the basis on which we approach these matters? Is the new provision for a commissioner to be supplemental to the existing arrangements, or does it presage a process by which they are overturned and something totally different is put in their place? It is important that the underlying issue is dealt with.
As I said at the outset, however, we generally welcome the order. We hope that it will help. This is an important issue. From my experience, victims want, first, to know that their story, experience, suffering and sacrifice are not forgotten, and, secondly, to be reassured that it was not in vain. Those are the important things. Of course there are questions of support. At the end of the day, however, remembrance and the feeling that a purpose was served are more important than support. That is not to say that support is not important—it is. But we must get it into perspective.
I want to make a brief comment on this order and put it on the record that Mrs McDougall’s appointment was highly irregular and threw the office of the commissioner into dispute. We have a strong public appointments policy in Northern Ireland, and I would like an assurance from the Minister that this appointment will be done in line with all other public appointments.
That is not to detract from what Bertha McDougall has done. She has done a good job over the past year. To take up the point of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I would hate to see the commissioner and their staff be made responsible for grants. That would start to unravel the whole thing. The Government should take that on board.
If I appear somewhat more sceptical than previous speakers, it is perhaps because I have slightly more experience at the coalface of what has happened in Northern Ireland over the years. I do not want to inhibit progress or to suggest for a moment that a Commissioner for Victims and Survivors is not necessary—it certainly is. I do not want to give the impression that I am somehow looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Sadly, however, my experience over the years has been that Government tend to use an occasion like this for their own narrow and selfish political ends. The noble Baronesses, Lady Harris of Richmond and Lady Blood, have both mentioned how public appointments are made in Northern Ireland. I can virtually guarantee that when the appointment of commissioner is made in this case, it will be with both eyes firmly on Dublin and no real regard for the victims. I wait to be proved wrong.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, quite rightly mentioned sources of funding. I am of course concerned that victims should be aware of all sources of funding. I am also concerned, however, that sources of funding associated with the victims commissioner may be of the same dubious nature as that which came from the United States and has been used to fund restorative justice—totally divorced from anything to do with the police, courts and so on. I am not going to stray, but the Minister will know exactly what I am talking about; he will know exactly how the Government have turned a blind eye to that dubious source of funding. I hope that those who will benefit from a victims commissioner will perhaps ensure that the Government do not allow this sort of dubious, doubtful money to be used in this way.
I am obviously concerned—I am trying to find exactly what the Minister said—about the fact that the main criterion on which a judgment will be made will be whether bodies and organisations provide services. Among the most effective bodies providing services in Northern Ireland are the prisoners organisations. Will they have equal status to those who are concerned with victims from the Ulster Defence Regiment or the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which are no longer in existence, or the Royal Irish Regiment, part-time, which is soon to be no longer in existence? Because they have been victims, the real victims and survivors tend to want to distance themselves from the circumstances that caused them to be victims. Hence, they do not have the degree of organisation and cohesiveness of those who were involved and may consider themselves—I do not—to be victims; that is, those who come from the terrorist, whether that be the loyalist or republican, side of the equation.
I hope that the Minister will assure us that he is not saying that everyone, regardless of whether he gave a service or created mayhem, is to be considered equal when we deal with victims and survivors. If we get that assurance, like others who have spoken today, I will be grateful and supportive. But if we do not get that assurance, my attitude will be reflected 100,000 times over by people in Northern Ireland who have seen their victimhood diminished and the elevation in public of those who created the mayhem of more than 30 years.
I am grateful for all the contributions. I do not want to start another debate, but they were not all as helpful as each other to the settlement of a good future for the people of Northern Ireland. I will stick to the order because I would go into dangerous territory if I deviated from it. As I have made clear, the order involves a lot of sensitive issues, but I have been asked some questions that go way beyond the order and, if I can respond to those points with a degree of comfort, I will.
Give that we have the order, it would be difficult to open up a debate on who is more of a victim than anyone else or who is an innocent victim. Should the partners or families of people who have been involved in the Troubles be classified as victims or survivors or be excluded even though they are ordinary citizens but, nevertheless, have been tied up in the Troubles because of the actions of partners or other members of the family?
I realise that there are problems of legal definitions anyway; if people are really upset about them, they can always resort to going to court if they are so minded. If we exclude categories of people because they, let us say, have served a term of imprisonment, some might even want to exclude their partners and families in future. I fully accept that there are some dodgy issues here. We cannot completely rewrite the order. There would be substantial difficulties in pursuing that.
A lot of voluntary groups, some cross-community, are involved in this. It would in no way be a good idea to open up legal niceties that stopped even cross-community approaches. To answer one point, nobody is going to be forced to sit in a room with people they do not want to sit in a room with. There is no idea of specific performance here. The remit of the commissioner is set out. It may not be as powerful as some would wish. For example, there is no facility for the victims commissioner to be involved in giving grants. However, if anything, that would create far more scope for hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds spent on parliamentary Answers to Questions about the grants—as, indeed, happens now with the voluntary sector.
Let us get this absolutely clear. The funding of the victims commissioner is effectively by the Government of Northern Ireland: the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. In other words, it is taxpayers’ money. Let us leave aside direct rule for the moment, because that does not change the funding mechanism. The victims commissioner is funded by public funds. There is no voluntary sector funding issue, or overseas funding. It will be part of the budget for Northern Ireland, which will be clear for everyone to see.
A good number of bodies and organisations provide services. I do not have a full list, although I came across many of them in my year in Northern Ireland as one of the Ministers. I have seen many more lists, as answering parliamentary Questions requires. The provisions of the order relate to the commissioner looking at services for victims and survivors provided by all bodies. We should not try to second-guess the commissioner, whoever he or she may be following an appointment. We will ask them to do a specific, professional job, and we should let them get on with it. They will be accountable in the court of public opinion in any event.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, asked me a specific question about the Alliance proposals in the recent discussions. We are grateful for the Alliance’s paper, and careful consideration is being given to the ideas in it. However, no decisions have been taken yet.
I am grateful for the welcome of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. I am unaware of a plan of work set up by the Secretary of State. To be honest, given how we have gone with the order over the summer, the reasonable assumption of the Secretary of State’s office is that he would not be doing this after 24 November anyway. In that sense, there is no plan. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, that our intention is—as I have said, and will say in relation to other orders—to progress what it is in the pot at the moment.
We sincerely hope, however, with advertisements and public consultations through the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, that by the time a victims commissioner is appointed in 2007, the work would be done by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, actually there and responsible in Northern Ireland. It would not be done by the Secretary of State, subject to the vagaries of fate—it takes quite a while to advertise. I am not saying that this would happen, but it is our sincere hope that it does—people in Northern Ireland should be making these decisions, not direct rule Ministers.
In the absence of that, however, we are making progress. We now have an interim commissioner, and we want to put the commissioner on a statutory footing. That requires going through due process, which is what we intend to do.
Perhaps the Minister would clarify that further. The officials who are notionally working for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are working to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. My question was whether there are in official circles proposals developing, or some sort of idea, about the work plan. I am sure that that work is going on and is available to the Northern Ireland Office.
Of course those officials are working to the Ministers. I suspect that we are trying not to second-guess the appointment of a commissioner. The work plan would have to be discussed. If the Assembly and Executive are not back, a work plan will have to be drawn up by the Secretary of State and the Ministers who are responsible for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister—those are currently my right honourable friend Peter Hain and my honourable friend David Hanson. I am not saying that no thought has been given to the issue. Our expectation would have been that Northern Ireland politicians would be running the show from 25 November. Clearly, that will not happen, but we certainly hope that it will be the case from next March. It would probably be quite counterproductive to act too soon. At present, the process is to get a commissioner in post in early 2007. We have to liaise with the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments so that the process is open, transparent and not subject to any complaints. That is the way to do it. The public process will apply.
The commissioner certainly will be able to revisit issues from the past, particularly those covered by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, so there is no problem with that. We want the commissioner to look at services and provision for victims and survivors. There will be some areas where we do not know what the work programme will cover, but the work done by Sir Kenneth certainly can be looked at and taken into account by the commissioner. We want the commissioner to be appointed before we start deploying the work programme. As I say, our sincere hope is that the work programme is drawn up by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
On the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, efforts have been made regarding the provision of counselling, but much more effort is required. In a way, an assessment of need is necessary, which we hope the interim commissioner will draw attention to in her report. The role of the victims and survivors forum will depend on the outcome of work taking place by the interim commissioner. It is likely that the forum will have an influential voice for victims and survivors, but its form is yet to be decided. There is nothing hard and fast about it. It is important that we get the statutory footing right.
I am well aware that there are gaps in funding. I came across this in the peace programme. Certain sections of society have not been too good at knowing what is available, filling in the forms and all that rigmarole. I regret the amount of form filling that people have to do in order to obtain services and sometimes funding. Nevertheless, special efforts have been made with regard to the Europe-funded peace programme to make sure that we can reach those areas from where we did not get enough applications. There are certainly gaps in the process and it is important that more work is done to provide information.
As I say, Mrs McDougall is carrying out a review of how well current funding arrangements are addressing need. It is not our plan that the commissioner should give grants. Knowing what I know—and I would listen to others’ voices as well—I do not think that it would be a good idea. I will say no more than that. There is no question but that it certainly would interfere with the main job.
It would be nice if I could report back that this was the unanimous feeling of the Committee. But I do not want to put words into colleagues’ mouths.
The commissioner must look into areas of funding, including funding from the Government and the voluntary sector, as well as, as the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, said, dodgy funding. As part of the work programme, if there is any dodgy funding that results in unfairness, the commissioner should be able to comment on it—so he or she will have to find out about it. The commissioner is funded by the public but not funding the public, if I may put it that way. There are other means of funding the public.
The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked about forms of arbitration. We expect that to be a matter for the commissioner, but we wish the provisions of the order to work in an inclusive manner for all affected by the Troubles. That is a sensitive and global way of putting it—to work in an inclusive manner. I realise that that means working with groups that people might want to work together with but not physically work together with. It is not for me to say, but I understand that it is quite the norm in Northern Ireland to have discussions in different rooms. People still come to a conclusion that they can agree to. That is fine, but it is best that we do not second-guess what the commissioner appointed under this order would do.
I do not want to open up a debate. I think that I have answered most of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, made. I can assure him that the United Kingdom Government—the direct rule Ministers—have no political or ulterior motives at all. I repeat “no”. We want to get out of there. We enjoy serving our fellow citizens, as I did, but the fact is that we want out. We want Northern Ireland politicians to do it. So we have no ulterior motive as the UK Government. The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, mentioned narrow political ends. We have no political agenda, in that sense.
As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, this is not the first time that someone has had responsibility for looking at what happens to victims and survivors, how they are treated and how the public services treat them. It is not only a question of the voluntary sector. The Government have no narrow political ends in introducing this order today.
The point that I want to make concerns the fact that here we have an Order in Council, coming forward at this stage. That is fine; I recognise that there is some urgency. But when the question is asked about a work plan, it appears that no serious thought has been given to why we are bringing forward this legislation in this form—an Order in Council—at this time, without having anything substantive that the Government, if things do not happen and we do not get an Assembly, or a new Assembly can build on.
I got that in a nutshell. We bring this forward but we do not bring it all forward because we want to have a commissioner appointed in a public and transparent way, with the help of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The agreement of the commissioner on a work plan is not something that can be imposed. If I came forward with a work plan, first I would be accused by people saying, “Well, you don’t expect the Northern Ireland Executive to be back, for a start”. We do—it is their duty to be back. Secondly, we would have pre-empted the appointment of the commissioner.
I am not saying that no thought has been given to those issues. We have got to the stage in the process of bringing the order forward to put the victims commissioner on a statutory basis. The order is a case of what you see is what you get. We would prefer it to be operated and implemented by the Northern Ireland Assembly—that is our choice. But the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly is not an excuse for not introducing the legislation. That mantra will be repeated later this afternoon, because that is the way of the world. The reform process carries on. We want the Assembly to take it over but, if it does not, we will still carry on.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Electricity Consents (Planning) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Electricity Consents (Planning) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.
The noble Lord said: This order would introduce provisions amending the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order 1992 to bring consents for electricity projects in Northern Ireland broadly into line with those in Great Britain. The Great Britain arrangements with which those in Northern Ireland are being brought into line have existed since 1990, so it is not something that has just happened. It broadly reflects what has happened since 1990.
I shall comment briefly on what we are seeking to achieve with this order and then comment on the two detailed provisions. In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the world, demand for energy continues to grow. With that increased demand comes the danger of global warming and climate change. I know that noble Lords recognise that climate change is with us and that there is a necessity to take up the challenges associated with it. Renewable energy is something that Northern Ireland is uniquely placed to develop, as it has an abundance of wind, tidal and marine current potential and the opportunity to expand the contribution of renewables in a growing all-island energy market. It is with this in mind that the Secretary of State has made a commitment to establish Northern Ireland as a world leader in the development of renewable energy.
The order will streamline the electricity consent procedures for developers by, for the first time, charging one department with the responsibility of managing a combined consent process for electricity generating projects. The order will enable the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to grant deemed planning permission and deemed hazardous substance consent on applications for consent to construct, extend or operate an electricity generating station under Article 39, or consent to install overhead electric lines under Article 40 of the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order 1992. Rather than the current dual process whereby a developer must apply to the Department of the Environment for planning permission or hazardous substance consent and to DETI for electricity generating consent, there will instead be one point of entry and one contact point for the developer. DETI will have the lead role in managing applications.
I want to make this absolutely clear, so that there is no misunderstanding: there is one entry for one consent to effectively two departments. All planning and environmental safeguards currently in place will remain and be operated. Doing it concurrently through one department rather than two will save time and money, which is in everybody’s interests. The order will ensure that electricity consent applications, the vast majority of which we anticipate will be from renewable energy sources such as wind farms, are dealt with as a high priority and as efficiently and effectively as possible. I repeat that there is no attempt in the order to circumvent or cut the normal planning and environment safeguards. All applications will go through that process, but there will be one entry into government instead of entry through two departments.
There are two provisions in the order. Article 2 sets out the power of the department to grant deemed planning consent and deemed hazardous substance consent. Article 2 also inserts new provisions into the 1992 order to enable the department to prescribe procedures for notification of and objections to the application for electricity consent, to set out requirements for notification of a public inquiry and to appoint additional inspectors to assist in conducting an inquiry.
Article 3 amends the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order prohibiting planning and electricity consent procedures being carried out concurrently. That is a very important process of trying to speed the process up and cut out red tape.
The measures in this draft order lay the necessary foundations for ensuring that consent for important electricity generating projects is prioritised and dealt with efficiently. There is a responsibility for managing combined consents for electricity generating projects where they belong, with the DETI, which has responsibility for the strategic development of an efficient, economic and environmentally sustainable electricity industry in Northern Ireland.
It is as simple as that—and it makes you wonder why on earth this was not done years ago. The fact of the matter is that the push that the Secretary of State wants to give in Northern Ireland to environmentally friendly renewables leads us to the view that we should remove the hurdles and barriers, some of which are plain red tape. In a way this is red tape, because there is no change to the process or the way in which consent will be looked at by planning and environment or the DETI. It is just that consent will be applied for via one department instead of two and given by one department instead of two. So it helps everybody all around. There is no attempt to circumvent the planning and environmental regulations in this order. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Electricity Consents (Planning) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.—(Lord Rooker.)
I declare an interest, as I have three turbines on my land at the moment and the developing energy company is waiting for planning permission for a further number of turbines, some of which may well go on my land. But, speaking for the Conservative Party, I can say that we support this order.
I do not want to spoil the happy atmosphere that has surrounded the order up to this point, but I have a couple of queries, or two queries and one observation. The first query is hugely important.
The Minister assured us that all the normal environmental safeguards will remain intact. That is a hugely important matter, because the forms of energy that he is talking about, such as wind farms, are highly controversial in Northern Ireland. In some of the other proposals, I think that I caught a reference to tidal matters. If, as a result, a barrage is to be built across Strangford Lough to generate electricity, that will be probably the most controversial planning application in the last generation or two. These are potentially matters of great controversy.
The Minister says that the order will streamline the procedures and that, instead of applications to two departments, there will be an application to one department and the consent would be given by one department. That gives me great concern, and it is likely to give great concern generally. Is the consent now to be given by DETI, rather than by the Department of the Environment? The Government are bound to say that the normal environmental safeguards will be followed, in that the normal consideration will be undertaken within the Department of the Environment, but who takes the decision at the end of the day? Will people in the Department of the Environment take decisions on environmental matters or will those decisions now be in the hands of DETI.
The question of which department makes the decision potentially opens up a tremendous problem. If the final say goes to DETI on matters that are highly controversial in environmental terms, even when the procedures for the environment are followed through, there could be a significant lowering of environmental protection and of the extent to which the public can have their voice heard. That is the huge question.
I have a minor question, as well. In paragraph 1B under Article 2 of the order, a quite normal reference is made to notice to be given and,
“published in at least two newspapers circulating among persons likely to be affected”.
That requirement of publication is quite normal and is there in a host of legislation. But I understand that the practice is creeping in of putting those notices in what are called community papers, rather than in formal newspapers that circulate in a normal way and which you can buy in a newsagent’s. That gives rise to concern, because in Northern Ireland the term “community” covers a multitude of sins, and to develop the practice of putting advertisements into those so-called community newspapers may defeat the object of the legislation, which is to let the whole public know—and some of those newspapers are not available to the whole public.
The Explanatory Memorandum says that the new procedures have been introduced to streamline inquiries and to enable a multiplicity of inspectors to consider different lines or aspects of the inquiries simultaneously. The relevant paragraph ends by saying that the streamlining provision cannot be used if the Planning Appeals Commission carries out the inquiry on DETI’s behalf. That underlines the problem that the commission creates in planning matters through excessive delay and the slowness of its procedures.
If, however, as a result of the legislation, the commission does not feature in inquiries, we need to know an awful lot more about who will be appointed as inspectors. It is all very well for the Minister to say that this brings us into line with the position in England. In England there is the Planning Inspectorate, which is formally established. The people who man it are known and their quality is known, but we do not have an equivalent in Northern Ireland. We have a Planning Appeals Commission, but if it is not to be used, who will the inspectors be? We do not have an existing inspectorate to draw on. We need to know answers to this before we can assess whether the legislation will respect the existing environmental safeguards and safeguards for public consultation in these procedures.
I understand the desire to enhance electricity supply and explore other forms of generation. That is perfectly understandable and, in general terms, I would welcome such proposals, but I am concerned about the points that I have raised. I hope that the Minister can allay my concerns.
I absolutely can allay the concerns because there is no substantial change in procedure here. First, there is no plan for a barrage in Strangford Lough. There is an experimental turbine in Strangford Lough for generating electricity; it is sunk into the water. That was done after proper consideration of all the environmental issues. But there is no plan for a barrage.
As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, says, these things are controversial. Wind farms are controversial—energy generation is controversial—but everybody wants the lights to go on when they flick the switch. If we do not go down this route, there will be other forms of power generation that people will find even more objectionable. There are no plans for nuclear stations in Northern Ireland—and I raise the issue only as a way in which to knock it on the head. The fact is that energy use is growing in Northern Ireland, just as it is anywhere else in the UK, and we have to do better in using renewable energy. People put up these Aunt Sallies and say, “We don’t want coal stations that damage the atmosphere, we don’t want to use fossil fuels and we don’t want nuclear or wind farms or tidal barrages”. But we cannot all live off the sun, because sometimes it gets dark and cloudy. We have to be responsible and say to people, “We’ve got to get energy in a safe way for the sake of the planet”. We do not have a good record in that, so we have to move things around. Making greater use of renewable resources is one way.
I was just about to say that all the methods have the potential to do damage to the environment. The general consent among scientists is that burning fossil fuels has a highly damaging effect on the environment and the planet. Wind farms damage the visual amenity, depending on where they are located. In parts of Britain, I have seen wind farms that look really ugly. Environmental issues will arise and must be taken into account. However, if we want renewable, safe and clean energy, these decisions must be taken. You cannot say that you do not want them. All the factors—location, size, visual impact, whether a wind farm should be sited on land or offshore—must be looked at. There may be barrages, but there are no plans for any at the moment. There are no plans for a barrage in Strangford Lough.
Following the review that was instituted late last year, changes have been made in the way advertising is placed by the Government of Northern Ireland to achieve better value for money. Planning applications undoubtedly have a strong local focus. I say in response to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, that we are talking about big energy operations—they may be individual operations, but they would be large. I assure him that there will be proper and adequate advertising for these projects. Nobody will be able to say that they did not know about them. That is one of the issues with which we have to deal. However, we do not use advertising to fund papers or organisations; we use it to advertise jobs or to provide public information. We have been looking at this matter during the past year. The change followed a review of advertising policy and was aimed at getting value for money.
I was asked who takes the decisions. We are talking about two government departments and one Secretary of State. There has to be collective responsibility. We want a lead department to deem the planning consent, but it would not be possible for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to take the planning decision alone, ignorant of all the factors raised by the Department of the Environment and by the Environment and Heritage Service. Those bodies would be deeply involved as statutory consultees. If planning officials or the Environment and Heritage Service—or indeed the Health and Safety Executive—took a contrary view, it would be hard for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to take a decision that went against that view, because all the factors would have been disclosed and would be known. Ultimately, the Secretary of State would be responsible.
Expert consultees must be involved. The assessment of the environmental aspects of the legislation will be carried out in the Department of the Environment because it is the planning authority. Some projects, subject to changes that occur in the reform of public administration, will be assessed by local authorities when they become the planning authority. Those projects will probably be the smaller ones. However, I suspect that some energy projects, because they are infrastructure projects, will be assessed at the centre.
I was asked who can object. The appeals system in Northern Ireland is different from that in Great Britain. We have always said that it was not our job as direct rule Ministers to transfer to Northern Ireland what happens in Great Britain; instead, it is our job to find a process that is better for Northern Ireland. The Planning Appeals Commission has agreed to conduct public inquiries under the new electricity regime subject to consultation on the detail of its role in the inquiry and the procedure rules that will follow the order.
Article 3 allows inspectors to work concurrently on different aspects of the process. This is similar to what happened in planning legislation in England and Wales following the long delay over Terminal 5. That allowed different aspects of the process to be looked at at the same time, with those doing it reporting to the body that was taking the final decision, rather than a mini-inquiry being followed by another mini-inquiry and nothing being done. That is not to say that the decision is pre-taken—far from it. This is a faster, fairer way of arriving at the decision.
The environmental and planning safeguards must be in place; that is, publicity for the application, consultation with district councils, and input from the public and the statutory consultees. The Food and Environment Protection Act, the Pollution Prevention and Control Regulations, the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations will all be involved in the issuing of consents and licences. In other words, no attempt to short-cut or circumvent the existing planning and environmental rules will be made. The application will merely be made through one department instead of two. I emphasise that point, as I did more than once in my opening speech, because I do not want the wrong impression to be given in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord asked about the process. Detailed processes have yet to be decided for environmental impact assessments and inquiries, but it is expected that they will follow those currently in operation in Great Britain with adaptations for the Northern Ireland context. Officials will work closely with colleagues in the DTI and across government departments in Northern Ireland and with other interested parties to develop the processes necessary. There will be full consultation on all the regulations that will flow from the order. That is the safeguard; it is not the be-all and end-all.
The noble Lord asked me about additional inspectors. It is envisaged that additional inspectors will be appointed by the department in circumstances where they are necessary for the progress of an inquiry, which because of its size and complexity requires additional inspectors to handle specific aspects. They will report to the lead inspector. This is virtually the same as the process under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 for England and Wales. The lead inspector will be responsible for reporting to the department. Even when devolution of planning to local government takes place—if the reformed Assembly desires to proceed down that route—a planning appeals process will still exist, even for small applications that are devolved. Larger planning applications will be dealt with at the centre—that was implicit in the review of public administration—because that is where the mass of expertise will lie.
I hope that I have given sufficient information to enable noble Lords to approve the order. I repeat that its purpose is to streamline. First, we want to see a big push on renewables. We make no apology about that and there is no secret about it, because budgetary funds have been made available as one of the Secretary of State’s three new funds in the budget that we agreed for energy and renewables.
There is a big push in another area, too. When I travel around England as environment and farming Minister, I praise initiatives in Northern Ireland in extracting energy from waste. Massive research projects into extracting energy from waste, whether it is food or animal waste, are taking place in some colleges and institutions in Northern Ireland. It is important to do that because it is environmentally friendly. More projects will be undertaken to meet the energy needs of Northern Ireland and to sell some of that energy to the south. We have the facility to do that and to have an all-island electricity market.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Rates (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Rates (Amendment) Northern Ireland Order 2006.
The noble Lord said: This will be the easiest of the three orders with which I shall have to deal. I suspect that noble Lords will have many questions about it, and that, one after another, they will in due course declare their interests because they live in Northern Ireland.
The order is no surprise to anybody. We wish it were being carried through by the Assembly. I understand that the work started in the Assembly with a keynote speech in 2000 and a consultation paper in 2002. This draft order is the culmination of a four-year period of research, analysis and public consultation, and puts in place a legislative framework for the introduction, in April next year, of the new rating system in Northern Ireland.
I am very well aware that the reforms contained in the draft order have raised a number of concerns and some controversy, and that some of those who responded to the legislative consultations were critical of the fact that they had only seven weeks in which to reply. That timetable was necessary to ensure that the legislation comes into effect in time to allow further subordinate legislation, and information technology systems and other procedures, to be introducedbefore the arrangements come into operation from1 April 2007.
Within the past few days, an application challenging the timetable for consultation on this draft order has been lodged in the High Court in Northern Ireland. I can tell the Committee that the court concluded that the seven-week period of consultation on the draft order was not unreasonable given that the Department of Finance and Personnel had previously carried out extensive consultation over 32 weeks during the policy development stage. The application for leave was dismissed by the court, which found no arguable case to substantiate claims that the consultation process on this legislation was inadequate. That is not my view; it is the view of the court. Obviously, I can make points because I was involved as the relevant Minister for the period in 2005-06.
The last of three Orders in Council associated with this process, the draft order will replace the current rating system based on outdated and inequitable rental values with one based on the individual capital value of property. I knew nothing about the system of local government finance and rating in Northern Ireland until I arrived there in May 2005. I was quickly informed that a massive amount of work was going on and had been going on for some time. I then had to remind myself of what the rates were all about. I had enough of a job doing that as a Member of Parliament for my constituents. My biggest shock was to learn that the rateable values on which the current rates are paid in Northern Ireland are based on late 1960s rental values, when the majority of properties were probably rented anyway. Today, the majority are owner-occupied.
Over time, there have been—perhaps I may say—distortions. If all the properties in Northern Ireland since, say, 1968 had gone up the same percentage in value, there would be no difference in what people would pay. This is not a revenue-raising measure. It is revenue neutral: it is another way of raising the same amount of money. If the value of all properties had gone up by the same percentage, there would be no change. But the world is not like that. The value of some properties has gone up vastly more than others. Therefore, there is inequity and unfairness in the system, which can be shown.
Our assessment is that, under the new rates system, 55 per cent of households will pay the same as or less than they do now. In fact, 68 per cent of the population will pay only £1 a week more, the same or less. So there are far more gainers than losers under this system, which is a key criterion for changing local government finance, as the Conservative Party found out when it brought in the poll tax with more losers than gainers. Northern Ireland did not “benefit” from the poll tax; that is why it has not benefited from the council tax. There has been no reform of local government finance or rating in Northern Ireland while these reforms have gone on in England, Wales and Scotland, which has made the situation incredibly unfair.
The new system and process are about introducing a rating system that distributes the rating burden among Northern Ireland households in a fairer way than at present. It is not about raising more money from rates. I want to be absolutely clear on that. The new system will be fairer than the present arrangements, more transparent and more easily understood. How can one explain to people in 2006 that the fixing of their rates is based on the rental value of their property in the 1970s? It is designed to confuse people. Some people have a vested interest in confusing ordinary ratepayers about how difficultlife is.
Generally speaking, people understand the market value of a property. There are exceptions, such as social rented housing, which I understand and will come back to. But, by and large, the buying and selling of property puts a value on it. It is not a question of saying, “You’ve got to pay more because you’ve got a conservatory”, or, “You’ve got to pay more because you’ve got a garage”, or, “You’ve got to pay more because you have a nice view”. That happens anyway: people pay the price of a property because they like it and are prepared to pay a certain value as a willing buyer to a willing seller. The individual takes into account a whole gamut of things from the number, shape and size of the rooms, the size of the garden and all those things. It is not that these things are new; they are intrinsic in the value of a property that exchanges hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller.
At the moment, 25 per cent of all households in Northern Ireland receive assistance with their rates bills, and 20 per cent of households—140,000 homes—pay no rates: one in five households pays no rates. Under the terms of this draft order, more families and individuals on low incomes will receive help than happens under the present system. There is more gain for low-income families and households.
The order provides for a transitional relief scheme, new relief arrangements for those in full-time education and training, and an allowance for people with a disability whose home has been modified because of the disability. The work that is done by way of aids and adaptations can sometimes—not always—have the effect of increasing the value of the property. People with a disability should not suffer because of that, so there is an allowance, which is not means tested. The system also includes a number of non-domestic measures aimed at providing assistance to rural businesses for which there was generally widespread support through the consultation process.
I do not propose in my opening remarks to list every provision contained in the draft order. I am sure that Members of the Committee have absorbed its content and, because they live there, will have had communications from the relevant government department about their own circumstances. But I will highlight some of the more important issues.
On domestic reforms, Article 14 introduces a new rate relief scheme, providing assistance beyond that awarded through the statutory housing benefit system. Households will be able to earn more than at present and still be entitled to help with their rates. A power is included in the legislation to allow relief to be directed at particular groups and to adjust the level of assistance provided, which will be an important mechanism to allow local politicians to tailor the system as they see fit.
I was part of the collective team that made these decisions and we all had personal views on what kind of allowances there should be for special groups. We took the view that we should not create a complicated system, but legislate sufficiently to allow locally elected politicians, if they wished, to introduce different reliefs for different groups, be they single people living alone or pensioners or whatever. That should be left to local decision-making; it should not be done by direct-rule Ministers. We have therefore created the legislative power and designed a system that operates from day one, gives more help to low-income households, and allows people to earn more money than at present and still be entitled to help with their rates. We regret that this debate is not taking place at Stormont, but that is where we are at the moment.
I commend the efforts of everybody who has been involved in this massive process. It has been coupled with the peace process, which has brought us to the verge of the reinstitution of the Assembly—we sincerely hope that that will take place. I hope that the determination to get a grip on the situation and send the direct-rule, part-time, commuting Ministers packing is so strong in politicians of Northern Ireland that they will grasp the opportunity to take back power and then make the decisions that are implicit in this order.
In the detail of the agreement that was made atSt Andrews is a commitment from the Government to introduce a maximum cap on rates and to examine the possibility of providing further relief for pensioners on low incomes. However, I repeat that this will be subject to the restoration of the devolved Assembly. A further carrot is therefore on offer for the people of Northern Ireland if their own elected politicians take the opportunity that was offered atSt Andrews. The draft order makes provision for the measures to be introduced, so there would not be any legal and parliamentary delay. If the Assembly fails to be restored, the Government will take forwardreform in these areas as they see fit. That is our responsibility; if the Assembly is not restored, we will have to do it.
Article 15 provides for full relief from rates where a property is solely occupied by someone under 18, for young people leaving care or those in full-time training and education. This reflects our commitment to strengthen and develop opportunities for young people to continue in full-time education.
Articles 16 and 17 modify the current definition of disability and allow, as I have said, a 25 per cent reduction in rates where a property is occupied by a person with a disability and it has been modified because of that. Current recipients will retain their current allowance if it is higher than the 25 per cent under the new system, so there will be no losers. Article 18 enables relief to be awarded where rate bills increase by more than 33 per cent over and above what they would otherwise have been.
The package of relief measures is not a scattergun attempt at appeasement; it is the result of exhaustive and careful analysis. It follows robust discussions among Ministers about what we should do about certain reliefs—whether we should introduce some, but leave others for the Assembly to decide to introduce. Let us be clear; any extra reliefs will cost money. They will be paid for by other ratepayers. The money is finite in that sense. This is a no-cost operation; it is not designed to raise more money. Therefore, reliefs for one group will be paid for by another group of ratepayers. That decision comes with the responsibility of elected office.
I emphasise that the measures have been designed specifically to assist those most in need, reflecting our aim that the focus should be on ability to pay. That was central to our plans. The only exception throughout the system is the 25 per cent reductionin rates for households where there has been modification due to disability. That is not based on ability to pay. These relief measures will become operational in April 2007, once the new systemgoes live.
In addition to the reform of the domestic rates, there are some non-domestic provisions that will assist businesses in rural areas. The agricultural sector will be given support through the introduction of a farm diversification relief scheme that will operate along similar lines to schemes in Great Britain. The Government are hopeful that this measure will reduce dependency on agriculture and sustain the economies of declining rural areas by granting relief for new enterprises that were previously agricultural. The draft order gives effect to this through Article 24.
It is universally accepted by all knowledgeable people—I was going to say, by all right-thinking people—that the current rating system in Northern Ireland needs to be replaced. It needs replacing because that is how to get more help for the low-paid families. There is no question about that. We want a fairer system. It is true that there will be some people who will pay more, including those people who live in those great big mansions that I have seen in parts of Belfast—which I must say I was quite astonished to see, as I travelled around. Not everybody is income rich, even though they might be asset rich; I understand that. But our arrangements for relief go beyond housing benefit, so some of the people who would not at the moment qualify for housing benefit because they are a bit too wealthy will be brought into the system, which enables us to give more relief to people on low incomes.
The new system is more transparent and easier to understand, based as it is on capital values set at January 2005. For some people, those capital values will look a bit low as houses change hands now, in October 2006. But there has to be a particular day when the values of 700,000-odd houses are considered. There is a range of reliefs for ratepayers, which, as I have said, will benefit many more families on low incomes than is currently the case. That reflects the decision of the previous Northern Ireland Executive to introduce a relief scheme based on ability to pay. That is not a scheme invented by direct rule Ministers. It is true that we have processed it over the past few years with research and consultation. The idea that the old system, if I can call it that, needed looking at came from the Northern Ireland Executive when it was in place. We have just taken it forward rather than ossifying everything at a particular date. It is a much fairer system for the people of Northern Ireland.
The people of Northern Ireland are not being used as guinea pigs. I have heard it said that they are and I have seen it in the press—I keep up to date as much as I can. There is no plan in that regard. The system has been designed for Northern Ireland; it is a system that works elsewhere in the world, so it is not as though we have invented the wheel. It is much fairer than the council tax in England—there is no question about that—and it is certainly fairer than the poll tax. Above all, it is a lot fairer than the present way in which people in Northern Ireland pay their rates. That is the central point, and it is the duty of elected representatives to put over the fact that it is a fairer and more transparent system, which is easy to understand and which provides more help for people on low incomes. I am proud to move this Motion. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Rates (Amendment) Northern Ireland Order 2006.—(Lord Rooker.)
The Minister spoke as strongly and forcefully as he often does when he is passionate about something and knows something about it. I know only too well how much he knows about these matters. I also accept that the rating system in Northern Ireland needed overhauling. In no way would I challenge that. Things have changed dramatically—
[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 6 pm to 6.10 pm.]
I shall not repeat my opening remarks, but shall pick up the main thrust of my argument. We agree with the Government that the rating system urgently needs to be overhauled, but we disagree strongly in a number of areas about the way in which they have done it.
What concerns me most is the way in which this matter has been used. There is no hurry to get this rating order through. The Minister told me that the rating review is revenue neutral, and I believe it will be in year one. However, after that, it will not be, and no one can kid me that it will. If the review is revenue neutral, there is no hurry. No money will be wasted or lost. We all believe and hope that devolution will return to Northern Ireland, and we are supporting the Government as part of the team to bring that about. This business was started by the Assembly, so why the rush? Why not let it finish it in the way that it wants to do it now? Why threaten it by saying that if this is done in the Assembly there can be a cap, but if it is not, there will not be one? Getting this serious business about the lives of people in Northern Ireland mixed up with the St Andrews agreement, peace agreements and other political stuff is wrong. It may be said that I am naïve, but I do not think it is the right way to go about it. This matter has been taken out of context and used wrongly. It has created a certain amount of heat and made the Secretary of State seem to be a bully. I do know whether he is, but it is not a good way to allow him to be seen. There should be a cap of some sort, but I am not going to suggest where it should be.
The valuation process has not been taken into account. The Minister said that very few people owned their own houses 20 years ago, but now many do. However, most people who own their own houses—over 60 per cent of them, at least—probably bought them 20 or more years ago. There is not a big, mobile market. There is a market for new houses, which are bought by successful entrepreneurs, their families or first-time buyers. There is already a huge problem for first-time buyers, which is common to England and Wales, and this system will not help them, but will make their position considerably more difficult. That is not right.
I apologise to the Committee for not declaring an interest in this matter; I live in Northern Ireland and will be paying rates under the new system.
People on pensions who are living in their family home after their family has gone off will not have any money to pay the rates. They could well be living in a nice four-bedroom house in a nice area, but they are not wealthy. Their house is probably worth a lot of money, perhaps £500,000 or more, but unless they sell it, they do not have £500,000 in the bank or even £100,000 to cover the rates. That is extremely unfair.
The same can be said about young families or about farming families throughout the country who live in nice places in small- or medium-sized farmhouses. Anyone who, like the Minister, has had anything to do with the farming industry anywhere—let alone in Northern Ireland—knows that people can do no more than make a wage as a farmer. It is a wonderful way of life for those who like it, but all they can do is earn a wage. If the value of their property is raised to something that an entrepreneur might payto have a nice place around him—£350,000 or £500,000—the farmer living in it does not have the means to meet the rate increase that he will face. There is a series of issues in that area that I am unhappy with.
I am unhappy also about the business of being deemed to have been unreasonable or to have failed to give reasonable assistance to people valuing the house, for which one can be fined £1,000. Who will decide whether someone has been unreasonable? I read the order to mean that people will be taken to court and given a criminal record because they happen to have an argument on the backdoor step with an official from a government department. I find that pretty heavy-handed.
There is also the business of flying overhouses, particularly country houses, to take aerial photographs. We live in a world where crime is still going up. Terrorism may be going down, but crime is going up. The smart guys will get their hands on those photographs to study the ways in to the house. They can then send a bogus surveyor to look at the house and get the information from him. It is just wide open. I do not see the sense in it. It is criminally wrong for the Government to go into that detail.
This order needs to be radically amended to deal with all sorts of loopholes, many of which I have not mentioned. My party—I am speaking from the Dispatch Box and not for myself—finds this order deeply disturbing in many ways. This issue should never have been involved in the St Andrews process. Consent is not won by threatening people that, if they do not comply, the tax on the roof over their heads will be too high. The policy should have been—and should still be—left to the elected representatives of Northern Ireland to determine and, in the absence of a devolved Assembly, it should have been afforded the full scrutiny of the normal Bill process.
I heard what the Minister said, but from the point of view of the whole country, Northern Ireland should not be bullied into being the test bed for a policy that the Government do not have the courage to try out first in England or Scotland. This order is a grim warning about where the Government are heading. This party cannot support this order. We ask the Government to withdraw it. If they do not, we shall seek a means when it returns to the Floor of the House to give the House an opportunity to cast its verdict on the deplorable policy and grubby tactics involved in it.
The Minister is going to hear more of the same from these Benches, which gives me no pleasure. Nevertheless, I thank him for introducing the order. In the press and in background publications, the Government have talked about the introduction of a fairer system of rates for Northern Ireland. While we agree that the current system needs to be reformed, we object to the proposals in the order. The proposed system is blatantly not fair; in fact, it is grossly unfair. The Secretary of State has made comparisons with England and Wales, but such comparisons have little relevance because they operate on a different local taxation system and the structure of the cost of living is different from Northern Ireland. However, if we want to go down that route, the Minister will find that the average Northern Ireland household income is19 per cent lower than that in the UK, that more Northern Ireland households—21 per cent—rely on benefits than in the UK overall, where the average is 12 per cent, and that Northern Ireland households pay 26 per cent more for fuel, light and power than the rest of the UK.
A major concern that has arisen in government consultations on this issue is that the scheme does not take into account a person’s ability to pay. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, about property prices in Northern Ireland. Indeed, they are rocketing. A recent Belfast Telegraph article reported that house prices are rising at a rate of £110 a day, compared with a rise of just £30 a day—which is still enough—in the rest of the UK. The Nationwide house price survey for the third quarter of this year showed the average price of a house in Northern Ireland to be £159,859, which is a 33.4 per cent increase on last year. The average price of a house in Belfast is at an all-time high of £204,816, which is a 24 per cent rise in the past 12 months. In such circumstances, a person who bought his house 10 or 20 years ago, when property prices in Northern Ireland were significantly lower, is likely to find himself with a huge increase in his rates payments, which he may not necessarily be able to afford to pay, especially if he is on a fixed income.
As we have already heard, pensioners are extremely worried about their ability to afford the new rates, and the public response to the consultation carried out in 2004 contained many stories from pensioners or people approaching retirement who were extremely worried that their houses are now worth considerably more than they were when they were bought. Because such people are now retired and their incomes are fixed, they will find it extremely difficult to pay the increased rates. A large proportion of those who face rate bills that top £3,000 will be older people who have retired from work. Massive extra bills will create havoc for those who have to pay them and for those who have to collect them, as larger numbers of people may not be able to afford to pay. Those older people worked hard throughout their careers to pay for their home, and they retired safe in the knowledge that they had paid off their mortgage and their financial situation was sound. It is not so any more. With rate bills of more than £3,000 falling on their doormats, they now face a situation in which they own their home but cannot afford to live in it. This situation is potentially catastrophic for them. Furthermore, punitive rates will hit the economy hard by reducing disposable incomes in Northern Ireland.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear me ask what consideration was given to the introduction of a regional income tax based on a person’s ability to pay, rather than on the value of his home. The Secretary of State has spoken about a cap on rates, and there has been some discussion of rate relief for pensioners, but neither of those proposals is in the order that we are looking at today. There is provision in the order for a rate relief scheme, and such a scheme is to come forward in regulations, if the department decides to bring forward such regulations at all, but what chance will Parliament have to debate and discuss such a scheme? Who will qualify for it? It is unacceptable for the Government to ask the Committee to consent to this order without the details of the scheme being in place.
However, our concerns are about not just the content of the order, but also why it has been brought forward at this time. The Minister sought to explain the Government’s position on that. The Secretary of State made a Statement in the House only a week and a half ago that heralded the agreement at St Andrews as opening a way to a new dawn for democracy in Northern Ireland. We welcomed that Statement and congratulated the Government on the work that they had done to achieve such an accord. However,24 November is now less than a month away and, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked, is this legislation so vital that it must be pushed through Parliament at this time? If the Government were to wait until after 24 November, we would know whether the Assembly will be restored. If it is restored, would it not be better for local politicians, who are accountable to the people of Northern Ireland, to introduce a rate system that they feel best suits the needs of Northern Ireland? Indeed, the parties have been asked to respond to the St Andrews agreement by 10 November, which is only two and a half weeks away. By then, we should know whether there is a clear indication that a First Ministerand Deputy First Minister will be nominated on24 November. How can the Government say that this legislation must be pushed through today, before we have a clear indication of the prospect of devolution, when this process has been ongoing since May 2000?
The process of rates reform was begun by the Northern Ireland Assembly. It should be concluded by the Northern Ireland Assembly. It should not be pushed through Westminster when there is a real chance that the politicians of Northern Ireland, who have been elected to take decisions on issues such as this, will be exercising power—as we hope—in the Assembly within a matter of weeks.
I, too, thank the Minister for introducing this order. I shall start by agreeing with him that most people in the Province agree that the rating system in Northern Ireland was in need of reform. We share the aim of the order, which is to make the rating system in Northern Ireland fair and more understandable. However, I, like most people in Northern Ireland, feel that that has not been achieved by it. I shall mention several areas of concern.
There are inconsistencies between the order and the law as it applies in England and Wales. I should declare an interest as I live in Notting Hill. I have lived there for 20-odd years. Unfortunately, it is not Notting Hill in London. If I lived in Notting Hill in London, I would be paying rates of about £3,000, but, because I live in Notting Hill in Northern Ireland, my rates will be upwards of £6,000. Capping rates is acceptable in England and Wales, but it was not acceptable in Northern Ireland in September. Now, in October, it is apparently acceptable. What has changed to make it acceptable now when it was not acceptable a month ago? I do not believe that I heard the Minister correctly. I am sure that I got him wrong when I heard him say that it was changed as a punishment for the electorate for non-agreement with the politicians.
However, I shall be positive for a minute. Following the so-called St Andrews agreement, we are now told that the Government are looking at a cap of about £3,000, which is positive, but surely we need more details. Why put the cap at the maximum level for England? Why would it not be more appropriate for it to be at the slightly lower maximum figure for Wales, an area that is more similar to Northern Ireland in per capita- income terms?
There is another inconsistency. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has said, many households in Northern Ireland are asset rich and cash poor. I agree with him. We are not speaking about large farmers or landholders. In many cases, we are speaking of old-age pensioners, people who bought their houses some 20 years ago, widows and widowers—people whose assets have increased but whose income has, unfortunately, not increased proportionately to pay these rates. There is a clear case for a single- occupancy and pensioners’ discount in the Northern Ireland system. Again, this applies in England. Surely Northern Ireland ratepayers should not be denied this relief.
The Minister has argued that the new rates system represents a win for most Northern Ireland property owners: 55 per cent are the same or better off, and only 45 per cent are worse off. I ask him to clarify whether the 55 per cent he speaks of is inclusive of those who were already not paying any rates because of housing benefits. The Minister said that the new system is revenue neutral. Surely that is inconsistent with the Government’s policy of increasing revenue from rates in future.
I can answer some points, but I probably did not sufficiently explain the benefits to low-income people. I will not go over it again.
I know that we are far more polite in the House of Lords, but the Liberal Democrats should be ashamed of themselves. More low-income people will benefit under this system than under the present arrangements. Even a pensioner couple living in a £500,000 house would have to have incomes of over £35,000 and/or savings of over £16,000 in order not to get any help under this new system. At that level, they would still get help. They are going to be the minority. Most of the speeches that I have heard only make the case for the 45 per cent of those who have benefited under the present system. Obviously, because there has been no revaluation for nearly 40 years and house prices have gone up by different percentages in different areas, people have clearly gained. We must take account of that.
We cannot go down the road of local income tax. It is seductive but impossible to explain, as the last general election proved. Property taxes are cheap to raise; the cost of admin is cheap, which is an important factor. You do not want to waste money collecting the tax in the first place, you want to collect the tax. Doing so on a basis that people can understand must be fairer.
Before I respond to the individual issues, I must apologise. This is one of the problems of being part of the action when the issues are being discussed, but not being part of it at the end. I thought that we had put a single-person option unrelated to ability to pay into the order, but it is not there. I alluded to the fact that it may be. There are things that the Assembly can do, but they are all related to the ability to pay—low-income households and low-income pensioners. They are things that are specific to pensioners, but they are related to income.
The only non-means-tested relief to which I referred is the one for people with a disability, when the house has been modified because of the disability. That 25 per cent is not means tested, but the other relief that is non-means-tested is the one for young people or people in education living in a household. That is related not to ability to pay but to the pursuit of education and the age of the young people. I apologise for that.
Most people in Northern Ireland will gain. That is the central issue, which people do not seem to appreciate. It is very difficult to argue against more people gaining, which is what the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats appear to be doing. This is not the poll tax, which meant more losers; with this, there are more gainers. I gave the figures of 68 per cent, if one looks at it in terms of households, of people who either gain, remain the same or pay less than £1 extra. If you take the narrow view of gainers and losers,55 per cent of people will either have the same situation or they will gain.
I appreciate that the people who tend to complain are the losers. Most people, but not all, who tend to be the losers in this are those living in the properties whose value has gone up faster than the average. If they had all gone up on average, there would be no difference.
Yes, but I gave an example. A pensioner, even in a house worth £500,000—and I do not know whether there are many houses of that value with pensioners living in them—would have to have savings of more than £16,000 and/or £35,000 gross annual income not to get any help with the rates. It is not as if they will be penalised. The idea that we are penalising pensioners who are living in high-value houses, irrespective of income, cannot be true. Those are not nominal sums of money; in modern parlance, £16,000 savings or £35,000 annual income. Those pensioners will still get help and gain under the present system; they are not losers. That is in a house worth £500,000; not to mention houses of lesser value in which the gainers would gain more.
I draw to the Minister’s attention the figures that are available on the Valuation Agency’s website, which shows that the question of gainers and losers depends very much on geographical locality. In Newry and Mourne, 57 per cent of people are losers; in Cookstown, it is 63 per cent; in Dungannon, it is59 per cent; in Castlereagh it is 67 per cent; and in Belfast it is 56 per cent. I wonder where all the gainers are when all those losers are piling up in area after area. Has the Minister looked at the quality impact assessment that was done on this, which showed that the effects were really quite disproportionate in some categories?
I have seen some of the figures in some of the areas relating to communities and their housing, but some communities are living in lower value housing than other communities, and they will gain, because their houses have not gone up as much as the average. If that is the case in pockets of communities, someone might claim that we are being beneficial to one tradition rather than another. We are not. It just happens to be that the dwellings that they are living in have not gone up as much as the dwellings that others are living in.
Noble Lords cannot defend, I hope, the fact that there has been no revaluation in the past 40 years. If there had been rateable value revaluations—as is supposed to happen and did so before, every 10 years or so—you would catch up. It is all very well the noble Baroness saying “Yes, I agree”, but because there has been no revaluation, hundreds of thousands of people have lost out. They are paying more rates than they should because their houses have not increased by as much rateable or saleable value as others. Why should they lose out? They become the gainers under this system. They happen to be the majority of households in Northern Ireland. One can always make a case out of where people live, but we are not taxing people on where they live but on the value of the properties they are in. Because they have not all increased by the same amount, some people have gained more than others. Others have lost more than others. That is what we are trying to put right with a fairer system, so that we are on a level playing field.
The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, asked, since we would be willing to introduce a cap on the higher values following the return of devolution, why not now? We have put forward a fairer system, taking account of ability to pay. If devolution is restored, and we hope it is, a cap will be introduced. This reflects the concerns of local politicians about the impact of the reforms on certain groups. If we get devolution back, it will be local politicians effectively making the decisions. Until they are back, the status quo as planned in the order will apply. However, relief to one group will have to be paid for by other groups. That is the reality under the system in England.
I was also asked about introducing a cap at the same level as Wales. Lowering the threshold after 2006-07 would simply increase the impact on other ratepayers. It is revenue neutral for the year in which it is introduced, but if you change things afterwards and the pot of money to be raised remains the same from the same dwellings, and you then distort the system to give relief to some groups, you must raise the level on everybody else.
The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, thought that collecting data by photographs was criminally wrong. It may be a difference between the devolved admin of Northern Ireland and England, but I was surprised that the information about housing in Northern Ireland held by the Valuation Agency is much greater than that held about English homes by local authorities. We did not need property information for the poll tax; it was irrelevant and sort of abandoned. Because the Valuation Agency has a comprehensive database, constantly refreshed since the 1970s, it did not use aerial photographs to produce these figures; it did not need to. The information they have about dwellings in Northern Ireland is astonishing. The photographs, by the way, are already in the public domain; it is nothing to do with the rates. Anyone can go on to a website and check properties anywhere around the world. This has been approached in an open and transparent fashion, but the Valuation Agency already held enough information to make these valuations because of its normal processes over the past 30 or 40 years.
The noble Baroness asked me about relief measures to ensure that there is maximum take-up. I accept that the minute you start means testing anything, you must ensure that people understand it. The Rate Collection Agency is looking at a range of measures that will make it easier to claim housing benefits, and looking at working more closely with the voluntary and community sectors. It will also use the media and information seminars. I accept that this is a big change for Northern Ireland. It is a cultural change, which affects every household in Northern Ireland. Whether they pay rates or not, it is a big change. Therefore, the maximum possible publicity and information has to be given. I have given figures relating to pensioners and this is not an attack on them. More people will gain than lose under the new system.
The noble Baroness asked me about local income tax, on which I am serious. Obviously, it is very seductive to have a local income tax, but that is not government policy. Her party was completely unable to explain it at the last election. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 prevents a local income tax and some other taxation matters being introduced. There was very little support for that measure during the extensive consultation exercise. There would also be concerns about the potential to evade it compared with a property tax. As I say, it is a lot cheaper to collect a property tax than it is to collect from individuals. It would certainly have a disproportionate impact on employees.
The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked me whether people in rural areas benefit from the same level of service provision. It is true that distances are greater. It is for the community “kitty” to collect the money to pay for services and for a small proportion of public expenditure in Northern Ireland. It is not as though a massive amount is collected for that and most it—I will be corrected on this—comes from general taxation rather than local rates.
There is no question that Northern Ireland has got a dispersed population. It is so dispersed that there is a bungalow in almost every field, but I do not want to start another debate. There is no doubt that service provision tends to be more expensive where that is the case and the problem is exacerbated. It is no different in rural areas of Wales. Services are not just for the local council, they are also for the region and one has to make a judgment over everything. I have already refuted the allegation that Northern Ireland is being used as a test bed for reforms in Great Britain. It is not. We deliberately adopted specific systems for Northern Ireland that take account of local circumstances and avoided a one-size-fits-all approach.
The Lyons Inquiry is reviewing local government financing and funding, and I would not want to pre-empt discussions. Clearly, anyone interested in local government reform will have a look at what is happening in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the world. It is a very sensitive issue. Local government tax is probably the single biggest up-front tax that most people pay, which is why council tax is so unpopular in England. When you pay PAYE, VAT and excise duty, you do not notice them up front. When you get the bill for council tax, you know about it, which makes it very unpopular.
The noble Lord also asked me about the miscellaneous powers that justify fining people who refuse to give government officers entry to their property. The power of entry provided in the order would be used only in exceptional circumstances. I understand that this power is less intrusive, rather than more. As far as I know, it has not been used in collecting the values for the 700,000 dwellings in Northern Ireland. We need people to co-operate as neighbours and we need to take action against those who opt out of providing part of the kitty. There has been no need to use the powers of entry in order to collect the information.
Our view is that first-time buyers will benefit. The properties that have risen less than average tend to be those that first-time buyers go for. First-time buyers will gain because their rates will be less than they are today. So the new system will benefit first-time buyers. If you are a first-time buyer going in for a £300,000 house, perhaps that will not apply, but the vast majority of first-time buyers buy houses that are less than the average price and that have gone up, by and large, by less than the average over the past 40 years. Therefore, under this system, they will pay less in council tax than they do in rates. First-time buyers will gain, most people will gain and most pensioners will gain. I cannot believe that people will not want this new system.
Why are we rushing this order through in time for the November Privy Council? That is assuming it gets parliamentary approval, and I take nothing for granted. This has been a lengthy process, and it is part of a wider reform. We cannot simply leave this matter alone and say that, because the process has taken so long and is revenue neutral, we do not need to do it. The work has been done, the consultations have taken place, the information technology is in place and the preparatory work has been substantial. It is a fairer system and because there are more gainers than losers—the figures back us up on that—why should we hold back? We want to get more aid to the low paid, faster. That is why we have introduced the order rather than delayed it.
I have dealt with the cap and restoration. Not introducing a cap affects less than 0.5 per cent ofrate payers, about 3,000 dwellings out of 700,000 dwellings, but I accept that a small number of people are affected by that. I have dismissed the bullying charge. I am not saying that I do not take it seriously, but I do not think that noble Lords took the view that we had been bullying; as I said, powers of entry have not been used.
The equality impact assessment found that Protestants and people in the “other religion” category are likely to face an above-average increase in their rates bill in the new system, but, in many cases, that is linked to affordability, and where that is not the case, assistance will be provided for those on low incomes. The initial analysis undertaken on the basis of the new capital values published early this year shows that the difference on the basis of religion in average rates bills under the new system will virtually disappear once the other factors are controlled. Once we can control for ability to pay and other matters, the difference on religion disappears, which is a good thing. The difference is because in some areas, people live in community blocks and values have gone up at different rates; the distortion has not been caused by religion but by the increase in valuation. We have to make that clear.
We accept that certain councils have a higher percentage of households that will pay more, but often very little is being paid. For example, the noble Lord mentioned Newry and Mourne. I accept that averages can be very misleading, but one has to use a figure. The current average bill is £660 a year, and the new average bill will be £713 a year. In Cookstown, the current average bill is £601 a year, and the new average bill will be £642. That works out at about 75p a week. I do not think I would go to jail for that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, asked whether this order is inconsistent with the policy to increase revenue. The noble Baroness must appreciate that reforms we are talking about today and the level of future rate increases are separate issues. This reform is designed to raise the same amount of money, but that is not to say that year on year more money will not be needed to pay for wage increases for public servants and for progress in the services provided, but we can separate that out. None of the increases will come about because of this change. This change is revenue neutral. It is not a change designed to bring in more money to start with.
Can I just finish this point? It is not unimportant. The other order that I would have brought forward, relating to water, has not been brought forward for reasons we understand—I do not want to go down that route. If that reform does not come in, it will cost the Northern Ireland Budget a substantial sum of money, and it can come in only based on the new capital values of properties rather than the old system. That is another reason why we need a more modern system of rateable values. I gladly give way; I think I have finished.
I thank the Minister. He is being unrealistic. It has been, as he knows, Treasury policy to insist on substantial annual increases in rates for quite some time. While the Minister hopes that this proposal will be revenue neutral in the year in which it is introduced, there will be a significant increase in rates in that year because of the Treasury’s requirements. People on the ground are obviously going to judge this new system on the basis of the bills they receive. The 45 per cent, in particular, but also the 55 per cent, are likely to find themselves facing large increases because of the Treasury.
The Treasury’s insistence on rate increases will probably damn these proposals in the eyes of the people of Northern Ireland when they get their bills. The Minister is being quite unrealistic by emphasising that it is not a revenue-raising measure. The rates are a revenue-raising measure from the point of view of the Treasury, and the Minister knows that.
Let us get this clear. The rate increase this year was the decision of the direct rule Minister within the overall £9 billion budget. We chose to raise the rates by a fairly large figure to get extra money for extra services. It was not a question of the Treasury telling us to raise the rates; we did not do it that way.
We have a budget—a fixed amount, it is true. Do not forget that there is more public expenditure per head in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK. Northern Ireland is not badly served in public expenditure per head—believe you me. That would be a debate I would advise noble Lords not to open up.
The rate increase this year was not Treasury led. I take my full share of responsibility. It was a local tax—a local charge—that Ministers in Northern Ireland could change. It would be exactly the same with locally elected Ministers. We saw the need for more money for three pots of services; we created extra funds for children, training and energy, and were quite open about why we did it. However, I repeat: the new system, year on year, does not raise more revenue. I am not saying more revenue will not flow, because—
Well, yes! That is all very well, but is the noble Lord therefore saying that public servants in Northern Ireland should not get a pay increase next year? Of course not. Where will the pay increase come from—an increase from the ratepayer? That has nothing to do with the change from rates to the modern system. People in Northern Ireland will understand that. Their taxes are like that; it is exactly the same. If that is the argument, I shall be quite happy to have it. I am sure, however, that people do not want to go down the road of saying, “Let’s freeze all the public sector pay in Northern Ireland, because we do not want to increase the rates”. Of course we are not going to do that.
This change is not the reason for any increase to pay for public servants’ pay increases. The figures will show that at the time. I cannot make it any clearer than that. I do not want to raise temperatures here by raising figures. This has gone on for some years. You must make the case forcibly: there are more gainers than losers and more help for the low paid under the new system. If noble Lords want to vote down the order, they must face and argue against that. That is why I am labouring the point. It is a fairer, understandable system. If people want to vote against it on that basis, they must take responsibility for their actions. That is why I am presenting it as I have.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
The Committee adjourned at seven o’clock.