§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Amos
I beg to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.
§ This order is required at intervals of every few years to adjust certain statutory financial limits and to deal with other routine financial matters. On this occasion, the order also contains provisions relating to the Ulster Savings scheme, and I will focus my comments on that, if I may.
§ Article 2 of the order makes provision for the formal winding up of the Ulster Savings scheme, which was the subject of a policy consultation by the Department of Finance and Personnel. It is the final stage in a process that has lasted almost 15 years. A policy review undertaken in 1990 revealed that this method of saving was becoming less and less utilised and, faced with competition from banks and building societies, was becoming less competitive in offering savers favourable terms for their investments. This was in contrast to the original scheme started in the 1920s, when Ulster Savings raised funds for capital projects undertaken by local authorities and provided a secure investment source for individuals.
§ The scheme became less popular in the 1970s, and the review undertaken in 1990 led to the cessation of new certificates being issued. Reinvestment in existing certificates stopped in 1997 and since then, the 7GC Department of Finance and Personnel, through the Ulster Savings branch, has made every effort to assist certificate holders in making alternative arrangements for their money. It has managed to achieve that, and 95 per cent of all holdings are now with their owners. The remaining 5 per cent, a figure of less than £9 million, lies dormant, and every effort has been made to contact the holders. Given that most of this figure relates to holdings from 1930 to 1960, it is safe to assume that many of the holders are now probably deceased.
§ The order seeks to wind up the scheme formally, but in a way that means if any holders, or their estates, come forward, they will be able to cash in their holdings at the value when the order comes into force. The Ulster Savings branch at Coleraine will close, but this will not result in any job losses due to transfers and retirements of existing staff.
§ The other matters in the order relate to routine technical financial adjustments. I commend the order to the Committee.
§ Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.—(Baroness Amos.)
§ Lord Glentoran
I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President for bringing the order before us. I have a few things to ask.
§ I fully understand the reason for the closure of the Ulster Savings scheme and support it, but what is happening to the leftovers which, as I understand from talking to officials this morning, come to about £8.5 million? The Government need to put on the record what they will do with that and if they are continuing to search for those people who have holdings.
§ I can see that expenditure on sustainable development is sensible, and have no difficulty with it. However, as regards expenditure on employment industrial relations law and practice, I feel that the Government are already spending far too much money on consultants in Northern Ireland. As the noble Baroness will be aware, I have asked a number of Questions to ascertain the large amount of money that has been spent on consultants. I am a little nervous about yet another opportunity to spend more money on industrial relations consultants. There must be better and other ways of learning about industrial relations, as there were in my day, when I had to do it the hard way. I would like to hear the reasoned thinking behind that.
§ I have to declare an interest with regard to events, having been, arguably, the originator of the Northern Ireland Events Company. In fact, I started Positively Belfast, out of which evolved the Northern Ireland Events Company. I also spent nine years on the Sports Council Northern Ireland.
§ Although I see the sense of paragraph 5 of the order, I want to be a little naughty and raise two issues which are close to my heart and concern actions proposed by Angela Smith MP to reduce the budget very 8GC significantly of both the Sports Council Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Events Company. To my way of thinking, and knowing quite a bit about Northern Ireland, as I do, it is about as stupid a thing as anybody could wish to do. Nothing other than good has ever come out of the Sports Council Northern Ireland in terms of community relations, education, working in schools and working across the tribal boundaries. The Sports Council's activities are largely low key and at grass roots level. For that, it should have serious funding. In my day, it was part of the Department of Education, and I thought that that was a good place for it, although I believe it has now moved.
§ With regard to the NIEC, three major events represent the biggest opportunity that one could possibly have to present Northern Ireland on the world's television screens in a good light for a very small amount of money; namely, the North West 200 motorcycle race; the Milk Cup, which is an inter-schools football tournament that takes place in Coleraine in August; and, every other year, the PGA European Tour Senior British Open, which now attracts many of the great American players and gives Northern Ireland the opportunity to be beamed across the United States and the rest of the world and to appear in a very good light. To kill any of those events by nitpicking over a few hundred thousand pounds is just crass.
§ I know that that is not directly related to the order and I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for perhaps having trespassed out of order. Having said that, I support the order.
§ Lord Shutt of Greetland
I, too, thank the Lord President for moving the order. Somewhere else there may be discussions about sin. I hope that they may embrace redemption, forgiveness and turning the other cheek; we shall see.
§ The order deals with expenditure on sustainable development, on employment and industrial relations, on events and on the laying of reports by the Comptroller and Auditor-General. Provided that all that is done with due economy, I am happy to support what appears in the order.
§ I was to discuss the closure of Ulster Savings. That is near to my heart in one sense, in that I have been concerned for some time about windfalls—I produced a pamphlet eight years ago called Building Society Bounty—and orphan money. It is most commendable that, having made the decision to phase out Ulster Savings, about £164 million has been repaid in the past 10 to 15 years and that there is only a residual £8 million left. However, that is still a fair sum of money. What is to become of it? There would be something improper if that were written off to reduce the public debt. That money was saved by people in Northern Ireland. We are told that it is likely that most of the people are now dead. It would be a useful testament to the lives of those people who saved that money if it could be used for community purposes in Northern Ireland.9GC
§ The late Lord Taylor of Gryfe introduced an amendment in this House many years ago to the TSB Bill, which required that some of the resources—1 per cent of profits—of the Trustee Savings Bank, which was an orphan bank, went to community causes. There is quite an interest these days in orphan money and windfall money. Such a proposal would be a useful start. Public expenditure would not be involved; if all those people were miraculously to appear, they would get their £8 million. If that sum were endowed for the community foundation of Northern Ireland, that would give a tremendous lift to those people who are working with community and voluntary groups across all the divides in Northern Ireland. That would be a very appropriate use which ought to be considered. I suspect that this may be the last occasion on which this matter comes before us. Therefore, this is the time when that kind of decision ought to be made.
§ No doubt it is considered that, subsequent to our having debated the measure, it will be passed on the nod. This constitutes an opportunity to announce whether the decision to which I have referred can be taken. That would give a tremendous boost—at a time when such a boost would be very useful—to the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and would be incredibly helpful. It would be testimony to the fact that saving in Northern Ireland is to be taken over by an organisation that is helping all kinds of people throughout Northern Ireland. I would like to think that something was left over from this exercise. It is incredible that so many people have been traced. However, the sum of £8 million, endowed, would give an income of a third of a million pounds a year to the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and assist it in its work. I put that forward as a suggestion.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Laird
I join others in thanking the Lord President for bringing the Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order before the Grand Committee. It contains a number of provisions that are of particular interest to me. First, I identify myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, regarding the Events Company and the Sports Council. Those two organisations have made a worthy contribution to the image of Northern Ireland and have played a significant part in building intercommunity cohesion inside Northern Ireland, which is very important. They have also helped to improve Northern Ireland's image—this is just as important—outside the Province.
§ I am a little concerned about some of the activities that could be carried out under paragraph 5 by the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. I have some experience of that department, having been the chairman of a body that reported to it. Unfortunately, as regards dealing with the image of Northern Ireland, we had very little, if any, support from the department. I need to be convinced by the Minister that the department is not just saving money for money's sake or simply carrying out the activities required by the Dublin Government but is attempting to create an image for Northern Ireland which will 10GC help our tourist trade and help the communities inside the Province. I believe that that has not happened to date.
§ For example, the body of which I used to be the chairman, the Ulster-Scots Agency, was told at one stage that it could not spend money outside the island of Ireland. That argument has continued for several years. However, recent legal opinion sought by Her Majesty's Government showed that there was no legal basis to discriminate against the Ulster-Scots people in that fashion. I say to the Government: let us hear no more with regard to difficulties outside the island of Ireland, and do not claim that the change is a concession, because if they do I will publish their legal opinion.
§ I thank those officials in the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure who organised the unofficial publication of the Ulster-Scots Agency accounts 2000, and ask why these were not first laid before Parliament. I have been trying to obtain those figures for years. I will take time at a later stage publicly to name and thank those officials involved and to explain how and why they leaked the accounts.
§ I return to another aspect of funding that concerns the image of Northern Ireland—one of the areas into which we in the Ulster-Scots Agency were not allowed to put money last year and this year due to budget cuts by DCAL. I refer to the beautiful town of Bushmills on the north coast of Antrim. Bushmills is a natural Ulster Scots town, full of native speakers and having all the physical aspects of a planter town. In recent years it has been neglected and now has a disadvantaged population. Some of us are determined to help the local folk to a better and more prosperous way of life. Besides the Giant's Causeway and the famous distillery, the town could be a major tourist attraction if presented as such. To date, much work has been taking place to support the local groups and to place Bushmills into its Ulster Scots context; all this despite little support from Her Majesty's Government.
§ I beg the leave of the Committee to make a point that I believe should be put on the record. I have learnt recently that a party of 50 Lithuanians who came to the area to work until Christmas were intimidated and left. I want to say in the strongest possible terms that whoever made the threatening call from a local public phone box is furthering no cause. The Protestant cause, the Unionist cause, and the case for Ulster Scots are all damaged by this sort of scum behaviour. It is the very opposite of Ulster Scots historical heritage to treat people as anything other than totally equal and welcome in Ulster.
§ We ourselves were forcibly moved from Scotland to Ulster 400 years ago and suffered at the hands of the local Irish. So we can understand those who come to your land for economic advantage and safety. If any Ulster Scots are taking part in racism, they are letting down their forefathers who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence and created the great nation of America, and they must be condemned. Such thuggish behaviour is not done in the name of Ulster 11GC Scots. Our desire is to live in a multicultural society of equals. It is an ongoing struggle to get the Irish to accept us as equals. So Ulster Scots must not be let down by racism in any form against the Irish or those from overseas. It is no excuse that a small section of the Irish community treats us in a racialist fashion.
§ I refer to paragraph 6 of the order, in which I am also interested, which deals with the laying of reports of the Comptroller and Auditor-General as to the economic efficiency of public bodies. There seems to be a problem somewhere in the administration of Northern Ireland, which we must find and put right. I take as an example the underspend of £315 million by the departments in Northern Ireland last year. Yet, to the surprise of most people, the Department of Education underspent in the past financial year by almost £52 million. Year after year the education budget is not spent in total and substantial sums are handed back.
§ I know that the mandarins will come up with excuses about capital project delays and other totally incomprehensible explanations. As a simple person who created and ran his own business for 22 years, it seems to me that if there is a regular pattern of available funds being underspent something is wrong. It must not be beyond the wit of our local mandarins to see the budget implications and to allocate the funding in such a way that money could be used to solve problems and thus not wasted.
§ I crave the indulgence of the Committee and take as an example Artigarvan Primary School in County Tyrone. The school has served the local area from its current building for over 30 years. Under the worthy leadership of headmaster Nigel Cairns, the school has an outstanding record of high-quality teaching and learning. The accommodation for the 186 pupils comprises seven primary classrooms including one mobile classroom and a part time nursery unit. Six of the children have statements of special education needs. All are catered for by six excellent teachers and by a part-time special needs teacher. There is also a part-time nurse.
§ The pupils are lively and willing to learn—the average attendance is 94 per cent. Artigarvan is a housing growth area and the parents, with the board of governors, are all very supportive and hardworking. Artigarvan Primary School, by any standards, is an outstanding school doing a quality job for the community. Yet Artigarvan Primary School has no library, no staff room, no special education needs classroom, an inadequate playing pitch and little parking area. The assembly hall has to double as a canteen, the PE hall is too small, and there are totally inadequate toilet facilities for staff and pupils. There is no PE storage, and little storage for books, resources or materials. The flat roof over the kitchen is constantly in need of repair, and there are many health and safety issues.
§ The school, through its headmaster and board of governors, has repeatedly had its requests for a modest injection of funding turned down. I am sure that there are many other schools in a similar position, but to 12GC continue this example, how do the excellent people of Artigarvan, who pay their taxes and are law-abiding and decent, the salt of the earth, feel when they learn that the Department of Education had an underspend of £52 million last year? They are entitled to feel aggrieved and wonder what sort of Alice in Wonderland world they live in. Will the Lord President give me an assurance that the case for extra funding for Artigarvan Primary School will be reexamined as a matter of priority? Will she further assure me that the underspend in the 2004 budget for each department will not be lost, but transferred to the current year, as promised by the NIO Minister, Ian Pearson, in July?
§ Baroness Blood
I thank the Minister for bringing this order before us today. I support the comments of my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, on the Sports Council and the Northern Ireland Events Company. They portray the real Northern Ireland, where people come together and enjoy life. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland. Over the years of the Troubles, groups such as the Sports Council and the Community Foundation have held the front line, while we have allowed our politicians to get to a photo finish—almost.
§ I would be encouraged if the Minister could tell us today that this windfall from the Ulster Savings scheme could be used in that way. One of the things being hotly debated in community circles in Northern Ireland is the Assets Recovery Agency, and what it does with the money it recovers. There is a feeling that the money should be going back into the community from which it has been taken. The proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, is an excellent way to say to the people of Northern Ireland, "here are people who invested in their savings, and this is what will be done with the money". I urge the Minister to think seriously about the proposal.
§ Baroness Amos
I thank noble Lords who have spoken. I recognise the strength of feeling about the plans that the Government may have for this money in the longer term. I will respond to the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Shutt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, with respect to her comments on the Community Foundation and the Sports Council.
§ As yet, there are no firm plans for the funds. I anticipate that in due course—we are talking about a few years' time when there will be very few outstanding holders—the options for any unclaimed certificates will be examined. That will be done in the wider context of the issue of dormant funds in the public and private sectors. Some £2.9 million was redeemed this year. It is reasonable to perhaps expect some more next year, and perhaps the year after that. The ideas that noble Lords have come up with today will be taken into consideration when we are thinking about the options with respect to any future underspend.
§ The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was keen to know that we had done all that we could to ensure that people knew what was going on and that there had 13GC been adequate publicity on the closure of Ulster Savings. There has been extensive publicity since the 1990 policy review. Advertisements in the local press and through the Post Office network announced both the cessation of sales of new certificates in 1991 and the cessation of reinvestment of existing certificates in 1997. Repeated mail shot exercises have been carried out on the basis of the last known addresses for the holders. A public consultation on the legislative proposal ran from 2 August to 22 October this year, with a consultation document being issued to over 300 people and organisations in the Northern Ireland public sector and the wider business, voluntary and community sectors. I believe we have done all that we can but we will of course continue to ensure that this is known.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, discussed the use of consultants with respect to employment tribunals. The general financial power will help the law centre, a voluntary body, with financial support. It is unlikely to be wasteful, with a figure amounting to only £100,000 per annum to run an employment rights project for people with financial constraints. Its own in-house legal team will be involved in discharging the money. It is not for use on consultants. Having heard a programme only last night on, I believe, Radio 4, about the kind of debt that people get themselves into and the problems they have with employment rights, I believe that having a law centre giving such advice will be very helpful.
§ I have already answered a couple of Written Questions from the noble Lord, Lord Laird, on the money being spent on events. Perhaps I may explain the context. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure currently supports events through the funding of the Northern Ireland Events Company. However, the sole authority at present for the department to pay grant aid relating to promotional activities and events is the supply estimates and the confirming appropriation order. This provision provides the required statutory authority; that is all that it does.
§ On the budget for the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Northern Ireland Events Company, the Draft Priorities and Budget 2005–08 was published for public consultation on Tuesday, 12 October of this year. Comments had to be submitted in writing by 7 December and the agreed final budget will be published on 20 December, when departments will be notified of their actual allocations for 2005–06 and indicative allocations for 2006–07 and 2007–08. Final decisions relating to the amounts available to the Northern Ireland Events Company have not yet been taken.
§ The noble Lord, Lord Laird, discussed the Comptroller and Auditor-General and the need to lay his value-for-money reports at Westminster. The Comptroller and Auditor-General has been publishing value-for-money reports during the period of suspension, and these play in important role in terms of accountability. The Comptroller and 14GC Auditor-General has been able to lay the reports in the Assembly but, since 22 October 2004, due to an oversight in earlier legislation, no longer has the statutory authority to lay those reports before Parliament. Although there is an administrative agreement, the order will enable the Comptroller and Auditor-General formally to lay them at Westminster. That power will be effective only while the Assembly is suspended.
§ The noble Lord, Lord Laird, also gave some specific examples; I hope he understands that I cannot address them this afternoon. I am, however, happy to read them again and, if I can help him further, I will of course write to him.
§ On underspends, I was not aware of an earlier commitment having been made. However, I am sure that if my ministerial colleagues made an earlier commitment with respect to underspend, those commitments will be honoured.
§ Finally, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, we all agree that racism has no place in our society. I hope I have addressed all the questions that have been raised. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, wants to speak.
§ Lord Shutt of Greetland
Before the noble Baroness concludes, I am grateful to her for her comments on my point about Ulster Savings. Where does she envisage we will go from here? Is it thought that each year we will learn how much more money, if any, has been repaid? It appears that the actuaries of this world will be able to assist in that regard. It may well be possible to say, "The maximum that is now likely to go is £1 million, which will leave £7 million". Therefore, what would be the process for going down the route I suggest, which the noble Baroness has indicated the Government may well consider?
§ Baroness Amos
It is quite hard to say now what the process will be. As I said, some £2.5 million was expended recently. We anticipate that the amount claimed each year will fall. As I said in my opening remarks, of that £9 million, given the period against which those certificates were taken out, we anticipate that a number of those people are already deceased, although their estates may claim the money. We will probably not start addressing the process for a couple of years. I know that that does not answer the query of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, in terms of what we then do. He has come up with some very good ideas which can be discussed. But our view is that it would be slightly precipitate to begin doing so immediately, given that the order comes into effect on 1 April. At that point, people will stop receiving any further interest. We would like to see what happens with respect to people coming forward over the next year or so.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ The Grand Committee adjourned at twenty-two minutes past four o'clock.