HC Deb 20 April 1993 vol 223 cc285-97 10.24 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Mates)

I beg to move, That the draft Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1993, which was laid before this House on 11th February, be approved. The present order is the latest in a series of such orders required at invervals of every two to three years. The latest such order was passed in 1991. The main purpose of these orders is to adjust, as necessary, certain statutory financial limits and to deal with other routine financial matters including the simplification and rationalisation of accounting procedures. I will describe briefly the purpose of the various articles in the order.

Articles 3 to 11 together provide enabling powers for the establishment and management of trading funds in Northern Ireland. To a large extent, those articles simply replicate the corresponding Great Britain legislation, which is the Government Trading Funds Act 1973 as amended by the Government Trading Act 1990. They extend the reforms introduced some years ago in civil service financial management, as well as the next steps initiative which created the first executive agencies.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

Can the Minister tell the House whether the provisions in the order cover the situation which arose as a result of the fraud perpetrated on many investors in Northern Ireland, in Great Britain and, indeed, in the Irish Republic by a company known as International Investments Limited (Gibraltar)? For the last 10 years efforts have been made to have the matter resolved, but as yet no satisfactory conclusion has been reached. Many of my constituents, now pensioners, had been depending on their investment in the company, which is now in liquidation, to provide income for their retirement. Their experience has been replicated throughout the United Kingdom and in the Irish Republic. Will the order in any way help those investors—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. It is a very long intervention.

Mr. Mates

I am fairly sure that the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is no. However, if I get better information, I undertake to speak again on the matter when, with the leave of the House, I hope to reply to the debate.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)


Mr. Mates

I have not said anything yet.

Mr. Trimble

May I take the Minister back to something that he said in his opening sentences? He said that the order is reproducing for Northern Ireland legislation enacted for Great Britain in 1973 and amended in 1990. As 1990 is the date for the Great Britain legislation, why has it taken three years to produce a Northern Ireland equivalent which runs merely to 10 pages of drafting?

Mr. Mates

The hon. Gentleman bangs a familiar drum. There are advantages and disadvantages in the system which we have inherited as a result of direct rule. Sometimes we consider what happens in Great Britain and learn good lessons from it. Sometimes we want to replicate precisely what has happened in the rest of the United Kingdom and sometimes we do not. I make no apology; the system which my colleageus and I have inherited brings the order before the House.

Mr. Trimble


Mr. Mates

I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Trimble

The Minister has not answered my intervention.

Mr. Mates

I have indeed. I have told the hon. Gentleman that the reason is the legislative system with which we live.

Article 3 provides the general power, already available in the rest of the United Kingdom, to establish a trading fund where its revenue would consist principally of receipts in respect of goods and services provided and where it would lead to improved management efficiency and effectiveness. Candidates for trading fund status would be considered on a case-by-case basis if and when they arose.

Article 4 deals with how the originating debt of a trading fund is to be determined and the circumstances in which this originating debt may be varied to take account of subsequent changes in the assets and liabilities of the fund.

Article 5 deals with the issue and repayment of public dividend capital and article 6 with borrowing by funds. In particular, article 6 allows funds to borrow from votes as an alternative to borrowing from the Northern Ireland consolidated fund. It is expected that the majority of borrowing by trading funds will be from votes.

Article 7 describes how the income and expenditure arising from the routine activities of a fund should be treated and provides for a trading fund to reimburse the consolidated fund in respect of accruing liabilities for employees' pensions, and so on.

Article 8 requires that a trading fund should be entirely self-financing and provides for the handling of temporary surpluses. It also describes the accounting and auditing arrangements to be put in place and contains an important provision relating to the production and publication of annual reports.

Article 9 deals with the winding-up of funds and the distribution of the assets and liabilities. I should make it clear that the article refers only to cases where a fund's activities are to cease altogether. Examples would be where two funds are merged, or where it is decided that the activities of a fund would be better financed by other means within the public sector. There is no intention to deal here with privatisation candidates. Such cases would, in every instance, be pursued by quite separate legislative measures.

Article 10 and 11 deal largely with minor consequential matters. Article 12 deals with a separate matter which may conveniently be associated with the previous articles. It extends section 22 of the Exchequer and Audit (Northern Ireland) Act 1921 to give the Department of Finance and Personnel powers to require any agency to produce commercial-style accounts, including balance sheets. The aim is to ensure that agencies that are not trading funds would supplement the appropriation accounts by producing commercial-type accounts on an accruals basis and, by so doing, increase the information available to the House and the general public. The measure will bring the position in Northern Ireland into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Article 13 would enable the Northern Ireland Comptroller and Auditor-General, in his corporate capacity, to purchase property leasehold. The only effect of that provision will be to place the Northern Ireland Comptroller and Auditor-General in the same position as his counterpart in Great Britain, who already has such a power. The intention is for the Northern Ireland Audit Office, in keeping with its independent status, to move from its present location in a Government building to its own office accommodation.

Article 14 amends article 3 of the Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 by raising the statutory limit on the net amount which the consolidated fund may lend to the Housing Executive to finance its capital programme.

Article 15 provides that fees paid to the Registrar of Companies in respect of his function under the various companies orders should be paid into the consolidated fund. At present, the Department of Finance and Personnel must direct how those fees are to be handled. Recent legal advice suggests that the legislation, as presently drafted, could prevent the Registrar of Companies from recovering the full cost of his services for which he levies fees or charges. The amendment will remove that difficulty and simplify procedures generally.

I commend the order to the House.

10.33 pm
Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

I shall endeavour to ensure that we treat the order almost as quickly as we treated the previous measures, but it is important that we give hon. Members from Northern Ireland an opportunity to examine the Minister's remarks.

As the Minister of State has just said, the order is primarily technical and provides for routine financial and administrative matters within all—and I stress that word—Departments of the Northern Ireland Office. Remembering the late hour of yesterday's debates, I have no doubt that hon. Members will be relieved to learn that I do not intend to speak for long. However, I should like to take the opportunity to draw to the Minister's attention some of my concerns about the various Departments in Northern Ireland and the way in which the Minister and his colleagues are going about their business.

The Minister will be aware that, despite just having embarked upon a new financial year, Northern Ireland still faces some regrettably familiar problems. Unemployment continues to rise and, judging by the most recent provisional figures, Northern Ireland's gross domestic product continues to fall. Those harsh facts, when translated into equally stark figures, mean that the Province suffers a jobless total representing 14.5 per cent. of the work force and a decline in GDP in real terms of 2.5 per cent. during 1991.

Mr. Irvine Patnick (Lords Commissioner to the Treasury)

That is not in order.

Mr. Stott

The Whip tells me that this is not in order, but I shall wait for the Chair to tell me that it is not in order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chair will tell the hon. Gentleman that he is going very wide of the order.

Mr. Stott

I accept that my initial remarks allude to the problems that face the Department of Employment in Northern Ireland. That Department has a problem in the ongoing and continuing rise in unemployment.

However, article 3 provides for a trading fund to be established. The Government's explanatory document, which the Minister kindly sent me, says: where a trading fund operation would lead to improved efficiency". I and my hon. Friends agree with the phraseology, and I am sure that the Minister will agree that we have actively demonstrated our commitment to improved efficiency throughout Labour local government in England and Wales. However, as we know from example, the Government's interpretation of efficiency is at variance with that of the Opposition. The Government should not see any trading fund as a halfway house to privatisation. I was interested to hear the Minister say this evening that that was not the case. However, I confess that I am not convinced. I still believe that this may well be a stalking horse for further privatisation in Northern Ireland.

Improved efficiency means maintaining value for money and high quality service. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that any operations that are transferred to a trading fund will not merely result in corner cutting or a slapdash decline in the quality of the service that the Departments provide.

I am sure that when the Minister replies he will gladly read into the record what is contained in the explanatory document, which says that the order has no direct implications for public expenditure that presumably means that there will be no cut in public expenditure— and will not cause any change in staff numbers. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that means exactly what it says.

The order will impinge on a number of Departments in Northern Ireland, one of which is the Department of the Environment. There is great concern in Northern Ireland and among hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland about water privatisation. The Government have already started the water privatisation procedure, and I hope that the order is not a behind-the-door way of facilitating privatisation.

Mr. Beggs

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it would be appropriate for the Government to take account of the opposition of all Northern Ireland representatives elected to the House and to the European Parliament to any proposals to privatise Northern Ireland water and sewerage services.

Mr. Stott

Whenever the House debates narrow Northern Ireland orders, it is difficult to stay in order. That is because there is no primary legislation allowing myself or Northern Ireland Members an adequate opportunity to debate the principles behind such orders and to table amendments. Therefore, on occasions such as this, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we hope to enjoy your tolerance. I may be testing your tolerance to the extreme—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That may well be the case. Hon. Members must stick strictly to the order, which concerns the establishment of trading funds in Northern Ireland. I do not know what that has to do with water privatisation.

Mr. Stott

Trading funds have been established on the mainland since 1974. They cover a multitude of activities. The trading funds established by the order cover every Department in Northern Ireland. They include the Department of the Environment, which is in charge of water services, ports and airports; and the Department of Social Security, which is concerned with social security benefits. Therefore, there could be a small degree of elasticity in alluding to certain problems.

I am not seeking to delay the debate, and I am desperately trying to keep within the rules of order. However, it is important to flag up certain issues that I and my hon. Friends feel are important.

Mr. Mates

Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman and the House. It was a little noisy at the start of this debate, as we had been proceeding at a fairly hectic pace. I will repeat more slowly my opening remarks. It is not the intention to deal in the order with any privatisation candidates. Such cases will in every instance be pursued by separate legislative measures. If there are to be any privatisation candidates, there will be an opportunity for full discussion of separate legislation. The order will not be used for that purpose.

Mr. Stott

The Minister has put that firmly on the record and in the public domain, and it will remain so for ever and a day. However, one thinks of other statements, not necessarily in the House, such as that during the general election campaign, by no less a person than the Prime Minister, that there would be no increases in value added tax. As soon as the Prime Minister was elected, there was an increase—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I insist that the hon. Gentleman confines his remarks to the scope of the order, of which he is fully aware.

Mr. Stott

I acknowledge your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will endeavour to cease to cause you any further problems.

Mr. Beggs

The Minister did not spell out whether future legislation would come in the form of Bills or unamendable Orders in Council. I think that the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) will agree that that should have been dealt with, and that representatives of the Northern Ireland community should have been told clearly whether we could effectively amend proposed legislation affecting Northern Ireland.

Mr. Stott

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I cannot recall his constituency—

Mr. Beggs

Antrim, East.

Mr. Stott

Antrim, East: the hon. Gentleman represents the wonderful port of Lame. I hear what he says, but I am not speaking from the Government Dispatch Box.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Your day will come.

Mr. Stott

Yes; my reward may well be in heaven. However, I will leave the Minister to deal with the problem identified by the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs), as he has offered us the opportunity of listening to his cast-iron guarantee that nothing in the order is a stalking horse for future privatisation measures.

Provided that the Minister's response convinces me that there is no hidden agenda behind the establishment of trading funds, the Opposition will not oppose the motion.

10.46 pm
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

I apologise for arriving a little late; because the business moved rather more quickly than I had expected, I missed the Minister's opening remarks. However, I have heard enough to realise that the Minister was entirely in order—although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) pointed out, we are very gratified that he touched the boundaries when he said that there would be proper discussion and proper legislative procedures in the future. We are also happy to have the support of Her Majesty's Opposition for Bills rather than Orders in Council.

The order raises a number of questions. I have listened to a number of debates on such orders over the years; some have been purely technical, while others have ranged rather more widely. One thing that puzzles me is the fact that the last debate on an order of this kind, which took place on 14 March 1991, was in the Sixth Standing Committee; the one before that, which took place on 22 May 1989, was held on the Floor of the House, as others have been. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell me what criterion dictates whether orders are taken here, late at night, or early in the morning. After all, they are all in the same class.

Is this a matter of convenience, or does it reflect the importance that the Government attach to such orders? The Minister points at the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott): perhaps he is responsible for the motion's being given the time of the House. We do not object to that, but consistency is always welcome.

Mr. Stott

Hon. Members will recall that, when we last debated the consolidation order, I pointed out that it was important for us to do so on the Floor of the House. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) asked whether we would consider doing that more frequently; I acquiesced.

Mr. Ross

I am very grateful to Her Majesty's Opposition: this is a happy move. I believe that more Northern Ireland business should be taken on the Floor of the House; if that moves us on to proper legislation, so much the better. Every tottering millimetre in that direction is welcome to us.

The hon. Member for Wigan and the Minister will no doubt recall that the last order paved the way for water privatisation and showed that the Government hoped to have a Government-owned company to take over water and sewerage as from 1 October 1992. I shall return to that point at the end of my speech, but it is significant to note that that was a paving operation for water privatisation. Time has moved on, and we find that this order enables the establishment of trading funds in Northern Ireland.

I understand that the Minister drew the attention of the House to the remarkable fact that the order brings the law of Northern Ireland into line with the law of Great Britain. It is of some interest that in this respect the law of Great Britain, in its present form, had its beginnings in 1973, 20 years ago, after the passage of the Government Trading Funds Act. That Act was amended by the Government Trading Act 1990. It is evident, therefore, that there was some rethinking of the Government's policies, as embodied in the 1973 Act. I suspect that the developments in practice which flowed from the 1973 Act led to that rethinking.

The order is a fairly surprising outcome for a Government who always told us that they were against quangos. Now we find that, as a result of those Acts, a number of new quangos and agencies have been created. In the 1970s and early 1980s we were told that the Government were against quangos and that they were all for folk taking on personal responsibility. There are few signs of Government Ministers accepting personal responsibility for what happened in the intervening years. A large number of agencies—108—have been created.

I believe that in what is now the United Kingdom legislation there is the possibility of four different agencies being created—those created with gross running costs control, those created with net running costs control, trading funds and Government-owned companies. I believe that the latter has not yet been used; the Minister will no doubt correct me if I am wrong. However, as the hon. Member for Wigan and the Minister will probably recall, it was this fourth type of agency that was predicted for the first step of water privatisation in Northern Ireland.

I wonder whether it was possible to create a Government-owned company in Northern ireland without this legislation. If it was not, why is it now being brought into operation? Like the hon. Member for Wigan, I always take ministerial statements with a fistful of salt.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned VAT increases. The Government did not increase VAT. They simply extended its scope and base. They kept within the letter of the promises made. That, I suppose, is what Ministers pay high-quality civil servants for—to find ways round the promises that they make.

Of the 108 agencies that so far have been created, not so much in Great Britain as in the United Kingdom, there are seven which are Northern Ireland civil service agencies. They can be easily named. There may be a few that are not on my list, but they include the Compensation Agency, which is a Northern Ireland agency, the Driver and Vehicle Testing Agency, where there must be a Northern Ireland input, the Northern Ireland Child Support Agency, the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland—which, I note, is a separate body from the Ordnance Survey for the rest of the United Kingdom—the Rate Collection Agency, which, the Opposition will notice, we still need, unlike the position in Great Britain, the Training and Employment Agency and the Valuation and Lands Agency. Those are all civil service organisations, not trading organisations in the real sense foreshadowed in the order.

There are also 12 trading funds, some of which must operate in Northern Ireland. For instance, there is the Medicines Control Agency, which I suppose must have a Northern Ireland input. There is the Land Registry, too. I am not sure whether that is the land registry for Northern Ireland or for the United Kingdom, and I should be grateful to be told. We also have Her Majesty's Stationery Office and various others—the Central Office of Information and so forth. I should be grateful if when the Minister winds up he would tell me which of those operate on a United Kingdom rather than a Great Britain basis.

I have two basic objections to all those organisations. The first is that, whether or not the Government are willing to acknowledge the fact, by creating them they have admitted their own lack of ability to control the Government machine and to keep it efficient and clean. The second is that they put the Minister at arm's length in terms of accountability. I believe that "hiving off- is the term used in Government documents and statements.

When someone hives something off, it means that he is trying to get some distance away from it, so that he can say, "It is not really me at all; it is the agency." I know that the Minister would respond to that idea by saying that at the end of the day Members of the House can demand an answer from a Minister. But there is not the direct accountability that we used to have. I regret that, because I believe that there should be direct accountability. If the Government cannot run a lean and efficient machine they certainly have no business telling other people that they should do so. Not only do the agencies mean arm's-length accountability, they are a demonstration that the Government do not really believe in their own capacity to do the job.

In the light of all that, can the Minister assure me that the order leaves Northern Ireland law exactly the same as Great Britain law? Or are there some differences left, and if so, what are they? We deserve an answer to those questions.

The Minister touched upon some of the matters that I wish to mention. I notice that under article 7 receipts and payments are not to be treated as part of public income and expenditure in Northern Ireland for the purposes of the Exchequer and Financial Provisions Act (Northern Ireland) 1950. Can we be told what the practical consequences of that change are? I am thinking of changes that may come about in the estimates and in the manner in which they are compiled and presented to the House. What difference will it all make to the appropriation orders and the debates on them? If it will make a difference, we need to know the details, so that we shall be prepared for the changes.

Article 14 increases the limit on outstanding issues from the Consolidated Fund to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. That is to be done because we are approaching the limit. Can we be told what the outstanding issue from the Consolidated Fund is now and when it is expected to be breached? The Minister will know that the Housing Executive is screaming its head off because it reckons that it will not get enough money over the next year or two, so perhaps in two, three or four years—perhaps in only one year; no one really knows—we shall be confronted with another order to raise the limits. We need to know how long the Housing Executive is expected to exist—it might say "subsist"—on the sums against which it can now draw. Can the Minister give an undertaking that if its assertions that it is being treated harshly and is running out of cash are subsequently proved correct, more money will be made available by an immediate increase in the limits?

The rest of the order is fairly clear. I have no objection to the necessary changes. However, if we consider those changes over time we shall see a considerable shift in how the Northern Ireland government machine has worked and how it is intended to work in future. So I should be grateful for answers to the questions that I have tried to frame to the Minister.

10.59 pm
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I rise only because of the Minister's failure to respond adequately to my intervention in his speech. He will recall that I asked him why we have had to wait, at a conservative estimate, three years for legislation equivalent to Great Britain legislation in 1973 and in 1990. Taking 1990 as the datum point, we have had to wait three years to have an Order in Council drafted.

The Minister gave purely generalised arguments. He said that it is sometimes an advantage to wait until the Great Britain legislation is in operation so that one can fine-tune the Northern Ireland legislation. He did not address the issue specifically with regard to the order. I ask him to tell us whether this order had been fine-tuned compared with the Great Britain legislation. I noted that when my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) asked whether there were now any differences between the law in Northern. Ireland and the law in Great Britain, the Minister shook his head. I hope that he will address that matter specifically.

Mr. Mates

I am ever the optimist. If that is the only reason why the hon. Gentleman rose, I shall help him. There was no need to follow Great Britain legislation, which was very restrictive and finely drawn, until we came to the next steps agency process. We are now enabling the next steps process, which has been going in the United Kingdom, to be introduced, because we have some candidates for it. So we need the same legislation.

Mr. Trimble


Mr. Mates

I did not think that that was the only reason why the hon. Gentleman decided to speak.

Mr. Trimble

Do I take the Minister to mean that there has not been a three-year delay in producing the order and that the Government considered producing the order only when they decided to follow the next steps agency programme? That raises two questions. Why is the order so many years behind the Great Britain programme on the matter? Does that reflect any question of policy? Was there a decision not to follow Great Britain in terms of the next steps agencies? Was that policy then changed? Or is it merely a reflection of the general sloth that afflicts the Northern Ireland Office?

There are now, I presume from what the Minister has said, candidates in Northern Ireland for the next steps agency process. In that case, I hope that the Minister will tell us precisely who those candidates are and what the Government's plans are. If the Government did not consider it necessary to have legislation until they had candidates for next steps agencies and were preparing bodies for next steps agencies, clearly those plans must exist now. It is only right that the Minister should tell us what they are.

From my intervention and from my brief contribution in the debate, you will understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we are most dissatisfied with the way in which the Order in Council procedure is used. It is not a satisfactory procedure. The Minister has given an explanation for the delay tonight. However, we could point to numerous other items of legislation in which there are significant delays. No adequate explanation is forthcoming. Delays are built into the system and it is utterly inadequate for proceedings here, as we have demonstrated this evening. I am glad that the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) commented on that.

There are other faults in the system, such as its secretiveness. The Government have secret consultation procedures with certain interested bodies and keep others in the dark. We had an example of that only this week. Important legislative proposals were leaked in The Independent on Monday. It turns out that they have been a matter of consultation with other bodies for weeks. Yet no political party in Northern Ireland was consulted.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman heard me pull up the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) because of the scope of the order. The hon. Gentleman is straying very wide. I must insist that the hon. Gentleman sticks to the order.

Mr. Trimble

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you considered that I was straying wide. I was merely referring to the legislative process, of which this is an example. The Order in Council procedure is an inadequate legislative process. Has the Minister read the report of the Hansard Society on legislation and its comments on this sort of Order in Council? Does the Northern Ireland Office intend to take those comments seriously?

11.4 pm

Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West)

Normally, when one speaks on matters to do with financial provisions, one tends to do a bit of whining. I shall start by making a few positive remarks. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am conscious of what you said to the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) about going a little wide of the mark, so I shall be as relevant to this debate as I can.

Remarks have been made recently by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) as the leader of the Official Unionist party. Until one understands, one might wonder about the relevance of that to this debate. I see a direct relevance between financial provisions and political progress. The people in Northern Ireland are crying out for peace and I hope that a political dialogue will start soon.

With regard to funding in Northern Ireland, I have studied this document. I must admit that it has nothing to do with appropriations. Perhaps the Minister could explain those matters which relate, for example, to the Department of Health and Social Services, the crucifixion of the royal group of hospitals in Belfast and the massive—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he must stick to the scope of the motion.

Dr. Hendron

I hope that this is relevant to the debate. I am referring directly to the document. I am aware of trading funds and other financial matters. I draw the attention of the Minister to one of the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland, indeed, in these islands—west Belfast. I am talking about the Falls and the Shankill. Catholic, Protestant, unionist or nationalist—one can call it what one likes. Could he explain how, in the order, the Departments are using funds to help young people who are being exploited daily by the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Defence Association? I may be straying wide of the mark, but I have almost finished. I ask the Minister to refer to those specific issues because they are important to my area. I accept that this is not the most suitable debate in which to raise such matters.

Mr. Mates

With the leave of the House, I shall respond briefly to hon. Members' comments.

I deal first with the comments of the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott). I could not have been clearer in what I said. I think he heard it the first time, and he heard it quieter and more slowly the second time. The fact that he still claims not to understand it is a little of what I might call poetic licence, so I will not pursue the matter.

I have answered the question of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) about the reason why we are doing this. [Interruption.] Perhaps he will listen; I listened to him. We already have seven next steps agencies. The hon. Gentleman was sharp to notice that I launched the valuation of lands agency at 2 o'clock today in Belfast. There are seven agencies, and three further candidates are under consideration. That amounts to some 9,000 civil servants—more than 30 per cent. of the staff of the Northern Ireland Departments in the Northern Ireland Office. That is not slothful. Nor is it a record of which we can be other than proud. But so far none of them has needed trading fund status or been candidates for it. Therefore, we are taking the steps that I have described. Far from being slothful, we are taking those steps in good time so that if we have any candidates for trading fund status, we have the legislation in place. I hope that that makes the position perfectly clear.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) was a little unfair when he talked about quangos. Several quangos were set up in two short intermissions of socialism in an otherwise long period of Conservative rule. But next steps agencies are not quasi-governmental organisations. They are distinct business areas within Government Departments. The chief executives are directly responsible to the relevant Ministers. As luck would have it, I am the Minister to whom the chief executive of all the agencies which he mentioned is responsible. Therefore, I am not answering at arm's length but answering directly to hon. Members from Northern Ireland constituencies for the actions of those agencies. The accounting officer is fully answerable too.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East asked whether there was a relationship between next steps agencies and Government-owned companies. Government-owned companies are a distinct category and the legislation is not relevant to their establishment.

The last item that was mentioned by the hon. Members for Wigan and for Londonderry, East was water privatisation. As they put it, they were sailing on the perimeters of order in doing so. Perhaps I can sail down that limit and give them an answer. The House will want to know that a consultancy study into the options for the privatisation of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland has been completed. It has confirmed the feasibility of privatisation. However, for technical reasons, privatisation will not be possible in the lifetime of this Parliament.

The Government remain committed to privatisation at the earliest practicable date. They believe that privatisation will offer benefits to the economy of Northern Ireland and, through appropriate regulation, directly to consumers, the environment and the general public. We are considering the best form of privatisation, including the benefits of a public offer for sale. In the meantime, we intend to explore the scope to introduce private finance into the provision of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland to facilitate further improvements in drinking water quality and environmental standards in line with EC requirements. But, for the avoidance of doubt, let me say that it will not be possible, for technical reasons, to privatise the water industry in the lifetime of this Parliament.

Mr. Trimble


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Is the Minister giving way or finishing?

Mr. Mates

I give way.

Mr. Trimble

I thank the Minister for the more precise explanation about the legislation. He said that the legislation was intended to prepare the way for next steps agencies that will require trading fund status. Presumably, the legislation will not be necessary if no next steps agencies will require trading fund status. It is a fair assumption to draw from the legislation that if the Government are making provision for next steps agencies to have trading fund status, there are proposals to give agencies such status. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us which they are.

Mr. Mates

I can go no further than I went. I have been as open and frank with the House as I possibly can. We are introducing the order to bring the position of Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom. We are doing it in good time so that when and if we require the legislation to proceed with the next steps process, we have it in place in good time and properly. On that basis, I commend—

Mr. Beggs

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mates

I am being very generous.

Mr. Beggs

I thank the Minister for giving way, and especially for the latter part of his response to this debate. I would not wish to claim that representations from Her Majesty's Opposition or from the elected representatives in Northern Ireland influenced the decision not to proceed at this time with the privatisation of water and sewerage services. Nevertheless, I welcome the announcement and trust that there will be no urgency on the part of the Government to proceed with that issue for some time.

Mr. Mates

It is amazing the number of times I have had to say things twice tonight. The Government are fully committed to the privatisation process. For a number of technical reasons, we have come to the conclusion that it is not possible to do it during the lifetime of this Parliament.

With those final words, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1993, which was laid before this House on 11th February, be approved.