Wednesday, 29 November 2006
British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill 2006: Committee and Remaining Stages
The Minister of State said — I have no doubt he was being truthful — the fund about which this section is concerned "is widely seen as one of the most competent managing authorities in Europe." Is there a report somewhere to that effect? If it is one of the best managed funds, it would be interesting to know where that is written down. I am not trying to be smart but I would like to read it. Generally, many of funds are badly managed.
Officials in the Department of Finance have informed me that an audit conducted by the European Commission concluded that the fund was one of the most efficient of these bodies, taking into account the complex environment in which it operates, the disparate range of bodies with which it must deal and the value for money it delivers. I am sure a report is available on the matter.
I had hoped for more than an invitation to search the impenetrable website of the European Commission but, given that we are in the anomalous situation whereby the Minister for Foreign Affairs must deal with matters properly pertaining to the Department of Finance, I cannot expect the Minister of State to provide a full explanation. I am surprised at the praise awarded by the Commission, given that the Government regularly gets into hot water over not managing projects properly. I would have thought a project which was as highly regarded as this would be put on prominent display. I would be glad to receive a full explanation for the matter if it could be communicated to me at a later stage.
For reasons of transparency, competition and fairness, the Government cannot declare an intention to spend a certain sum on a public project and no more. We have to let the market decide what the State must invest to deliver a public project. A project may change or be expanded and other extraneous influences could add to the cost. We often encounter trouble in that regard. However, the Commission has consistently described Ireland as a model for the EU in terms of the way we have achieved value for money for funds distributed through the European Union. One of the projects which the Commission has analysed from an international perspective has been the fund for Northern Ireland which supports a number of other programmes, including the European Neighbourhood Policy and various other measures across the world. While a full report has not been produced, the Commission has indicated to the Department of Finance that it is more than pleased with the management of the funds in Northern Ireland in view of all the difficulties involved.
I will resist the temptation to follow the Minister of State into the tangents he has described. However, I take it that he cannot provide me with a report which would support his claims. I am disappointed with that because this country lacks positive models of agencies which encourage local involvement while also achieving value for money for the public funds they spend. It would have been useful if a report had been available for future reference in that regard.
The nonsense rehearsed by the Minister of State with regard to not revealing what the Government was prepared to pay is only the latest in a list of excuses. If the Government will not declare what it is prepared to pay, it will make itself vulnerable to claims by bidders that they only agreed on tentative prices.
I raised a question about section 4 on Second Stage and received a reply from the Minister of State. However, after investigating the matter in the Library, I continue to find it peculiar. The British-Irish Agreement Act 1999 was commenced in the name of the Taoiseach, whereas the commencement of the British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Act 1999 was a matter for the Minister for Finance. If this is a certified money Bill, it should be introduced in the Dáil, as was the case for the aforementioned Acts, because the introduction of such Bills in this House is constitutionally prohibited. We have entered strange territory when the Department of Foreign Affairs introduces a Bill and the Department of Finance decides on its commencement.
Given that the date of agreement was 25 July, I fail to see why a Bill as simple and overdue as this could not enter into force one week or one day after the President signs it. The ability of the Department of Finance to extend its tentacles into the business of everybody else is an institutional problem for this country. That Department had a role in the past in this legislation, so it insists in retaining its influence by keeping for itself the decision when the Bill should enter force. The Department is only pretending that an excuse exists for delays to the commencement of the Bill.
I take the benign view that it is a protocol to mention the Department of Finance in legislation. I never introduced a Bill that did not refer to that Department. We will await the Minister of State's response but we should realise that the Department underpins all other areas.
We have been consistent and have conformed to the law and convention on this matter. The original British-Irish Agreement Act was commenced by the Taoiseach because all the relevant bodies were interlinked under the Government. Responsibility for funding the bodies has had to be assigned to parent Departments. The Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, for example, is funded on our side by the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. Foras na Gaeilge comes under and is funded by of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. The Food Safety Promotion Board comes under and is funded by the Department of Health and Children. InterTradeIreland comes under and is funded by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Waterways Ireland comes under and is funded by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. The Special EU Programmes Body is assigned to and funded by the Department of Finance. As a result, the Bill must be signed and accepted by the Minister for Finance.
This is not a money Bill, as we could not initiate one in Seanad Éireann. It is concerned with changing the rules vis-À-vis changes that have taken place concerning the financial perspectives of the European Union with regard to the creation of a new structure for disbursement of INTERREG funds, as there will now be extraterritorial funds. Following the passing of the Bill we will be able to co-operate not only with the North of Ireland but with Scotland. The commencement order was used to manage the process with Northern Ireland in the past, and as soon as the President signs, the Minister for Finance will move to commence the Bill as soon as possible.
I used the word "sensitive" before the suspension. Out of due deference to the serious and critical negotiations going on in Northern Ireland, we will do nothing presumptuous until everything has been agreed so that the Assembly might move forward and the body continue with development. Taking everything into account, the signature will be applied at the correct time to ensure that money can be spent in a proper manner.
I regard this as a very important few hours' work and thank all those who contributed, as well as the Minister for being so forthright. The Acting Chairman was with us in London when the British Bill was piloted through the House of Commons by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain. It is strange that they do not have their faces on the screen. We are very modern here, but there one sees only the writing and not Peter Hain. This is a great day's work, and congratulations are due all round. All these things are slotting into the overall picture, which one hopes will receive its final patina in March.
I concur with the Leader's remarks. In the course of the debate, we went off at various tangents, but the Bill itself and the broader debate on Northern Ireland are positive and welcome. This Bill is yet another minor part of the bigger jigsaw of political progress in Northern Ireland. I thank the Minister of State for his presentation and replies to the questions raised, and wish the Bill well.
The Opposition must find a few questions to ask regarding Bills, and I tried to do so. I am glad that the Minister of State is present and that the Bill was introduced in this House. It is good that we have legislation here first, since there is a definite degree of freshness to the debate. As I said in my introductory remarks, the Minister of State was one of the first to accept amendments to legislation. That happened regarding a Bill that had been making its way through the Dáil for some years.
I remember it, and I would not deny the Minister of State credit for accepting amendments, although not from me in particular. For any of us who have been around for a while, this Bill is part of a progression unimaginable 25 years ago. Things have happened and been said that were unimaginable, and change is under way on all sides in Northern Ireland. On this issue, I wish the Government well, hoping that the various issues are resolved for the good. I also wish the Northern Ireland parties well. I hope that there is no reason for the Department of Finance to delay the Bill's commencement, since it is part of a patchwork now fitting together, I hope very successfully.
As a citizen of Northern Ireland, I thank the Minister of State and the Government for their work over the years and the impartial and constructive way in which they have handled matters. In particular, they have stayed close to the British Government and ensured that things were done jointly in an even-handed manner. That has changed people's quality of life in Northern Ireland, and I am sure that what we are doing today, if the parties can move, will continue that process.
I sincerely thank all the Senators for facilitating and co-operating in the passage of all Stages of this important Bill. It is technical legislation but important in underpinning the mandate of the Special EU Programmes Body and allowing it to continue its very valuable work. I have seen at first hand the projects that the Special EU Programmes Body has supported and the impact that it has had on the lives of thousands in Northern Ireland. The Special EU Programmes Body's work has allowed people to come together on a cross-community and cross-Border basis in a way that had not happened hitherto. It has facilitated reconciliation and helped the region move towards a more peaceful and stable society. In addition, it has made a significant contribution to the economic and social landscape of the Border region.
EU support is very important in the Government's efforts to secure long-lasting peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and on the Border. I look forward to presenting this Bill to the Dáil shortly. I hope that it will be equally facilitating so that we can enact the legislation before the end of the year, giving the Special EU Programmes Body a strong mandate to continue its work until the next round of EU funding. I thank all the Senators and the officials in the various Departments for their co-operation. This is very important and something to which we are all committed. With Senators' co-operation, we will have even greater success in future.