Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings: 
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mrs Dolores Kelly 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Francie Molloy 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:
Mr Sean Neeson ) Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

The Chairperson:

We are pleased to welcome Mr Sean Neeson to continue the consideration of EU issues. Mr Neeson is the Northern Ireland member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (CLRAE), and he is no stranger to members of the Committee or the House. Mr Neeson’s submission to the inquiry, and a summary thereof, are contained in members’ packs. You are very welcome, Sean. You are on home territory, and I thank you for making yourself available.

As you know, the Committee is considering European issues and how best the Assembly can work. You were obviously listening intently to the previous discussion. The Committee is interested in your views. You may wish to make introductory remarks and leave yourself open to questions. The session is being recorded for the Hansard report.

Mr Sean Neeson (Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe):

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee. I have been a member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in Europe since 2002. The congress is part of the Council of Europe and, unlike the EU, it has a significant membership of 47 countries. However, it has mainly an advisory role. It meets in plenary session twice a year in the Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg. The next meeting is planned for March 2009.

The congress is made up of representatives from local government and regional government throughout Europe. Essentially, there are two chambers. I am part of the UK group, which has 18 full members and 18 alternate members. The alternate member for Northern Ireland is Councillor Jim Dillon from Lisburn. There are four main committees that meet twice a year approximately, and, unfortunately, in some very remote areas. The institutional committee meets four times a year and has a monitoring role in local and regional elections throughout Europe. The committee on culture and education speaks for itself. The committee on sustainable development deals mainly with environmental issues, and I serve on that committee. The committee on social cohesion deals with employment and citizenship issues.

The former Eastern bloc counties are very active in lobbying and networking. I have found that regions of those countries are keen to put on special events, particularly during sessions of the congress.

I also served on the EU Committee of the Regions for three years, which was the first tranche of the Committee of the Regions. It was looked on with some suspicion by some MEPs, and I am still not sure whether its full role has been recognised. I acted as an alternate for Sir Reg Empey and Denis Haughey, and had many opportunities to attend meetings in Brussels and in other areas of Europe. However, since enlargement, the new member states are trying to give it greater recognition and, clearly, their presence in Brussels has been greatly enhanced since enlargement.

When I served on the Committee of the Regions, the UK and Irish representatives worked closely together. In fact, the UK and Irish representatives also tended to work closely in the congress.

I also served on the board of the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe, which had offices in Belfast and Brussels. It was funded originally by local government, although not all local councils participated, and also by the private and public sector. Gerry McAlinden has made a name for himself in Brussels and has brought Northern Ireland to the fore. He is very active in lobbying and networking, and has worked closely with the three MEPs.

I am not sure whether it was 1998 or 1999, but some members may remember that the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe and the European Commission organised a fact-finding visit to Brussels for all MLAs. That shows the importance that Members attached to linkages with Europe.

The Committee Clerk may remember that when the former DETI Committee was carrying out its enquiry into energy, it visited Denmark and the Executive Office in Brussels. The one thing that I always remember is that, while we were waiting in Brussels Airport to fly on to Copenhagen, news came through about 9/11, so that was a poignant time.

We found the Executive Office in Brussels to be very helpful — at that time, there were two members of staff. The Committee followed up the visit to Brussels by requesting that it be sent all relevant EU directives immediately after issue. The resources, structure and the role of the Executive Office in Brussels should be reviewed by the Committee. In comparison with the other regional offices in Brussels, the Executive Office is hugely under-resourced, which must be examined.

The Committee will study the presence of other regions in Brussels. The Assembly Commission and the Assembly and Business Trust are also investigating how they can develop meaningful links with the EU, particularly to discuss the terms of enlargement, because that is having a big impact.

The Assembly and Business Trust already has an international dimension as a member of the International Association of Business and Parliament (IABP), which has representatives from other regions in the UK and countries such as Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Spain. It is also important that the Committee considers the role of UKRep in Brussels.

I ask the Committee to consider lobbying on access to Strasbourg and Brussels. There are no longer direct flights between Belfast and Brussels, and getting to Strasbourg is a nightmare, because one has to first fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, which is a nightmare airport, and then fly on to Strasbourg, so the journey takes almost a day in total. The whole question of access, particularly to Brussels, should be examined.

Mr Spratt:

We were impressed with the Executive Office in Brussels when we visited. From the briefings that we received, which were intense, lobbying seems to be a big thing, and there was a consensus that we could do better. An audit of the staffing in the Executive Office in Brussels is intended, before a strategy to employ more staff in is devised, which is a wise move.

When we visited Dublin several weeks ago to examine the ways that they scrutinise European issues down South, the people we spoke to said that the Dáil had learnt a lot from the system at Westminster, through the Committees in the House of Commons and, particularly, the House of Lords that scrutinise European legislation.

I noticed that you mentioned your Scottish and Welsh counterparts in Brussels — in comparison with what the Northern Ireland Office does, are the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly better at lobbying and getting funding?

Mr Neeson:

I have met Scottish officials, some of whom serve on the congress with me. They are better resourced and have bigger populations. However, we must take into consideration how things are changing in Northern Ireland. We have benefited a lot from peace funding. All of that is drying up now, which reinforces the need to increase the presence of Northern Ireland in Brussels. As you rightly said, it is not only a question of lobbying — it is also about networking. Gerry McAlinden played a very important role in that area, as did Dr Colm McClements. After they left their jobs, we only had the office here in Northern Ireland — although a fantastic amount of work was done by John Kennedy and Claire Whitten. Latterly, we were financed by the Department of Finance and Personnel. The Committee ended about three years ago.

Those people provided assistance and help, but nobody does that currently. There are two members of staff in the Executive Office. As I said in my paper, we need to consider that not just as an Executive Office but as a Northern Ireland Assembly Office. We need to encourage Members of the Assembly to make greater use of the Office, and we need create a greater awareness of the EU system and how it operates.

Mr Elliott:

Thank you for your presentation, Sean. I have a couple of issues. Is the congress almost an advisory role? Does it have any legislative standing at all?

Mr Neeson:

No.

Mr Elliott:

Is it advisory, or does it purely have an administrative purpose? Is it like one of the lobby groups?

Mr Neeson:

It is really an advisory role. It considers different topics on a regional basis that may be of interest. The fact that there are only two plenary sessions each year means that the amount of work is fairly limited — much less than the work of the Committee of the Regions. However, it has a role in the sense that it brings representatives from local and regional Governments throughout Europe together. The very fact that that is at local level gives a new dimension to the set-up.

Mr Elliott:

I have a follow-up question. You said that there was a demand to get information out to regions or countries as soon as legislation was made. Perhaps you cannot answer this question, but we need to find out — who advises Parliaments or Governments of when the legislative process starts for some of the directives? I am trying to keep the focus on that, because that is the time when we would have the most influence.

Mr Neeson:

From our perspective, UKRep receives notice of new directives that emerge. Either the Assembly or individual Committees would operate through UKRep. We found it very useful when we received prior notice of changes that were being proposed. A lot of the matters that we currently deal with on the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment relates to the impact of European directives and bringing us into line with other parts of Europe. To that extent, it is important that — at a very early stage — we get sight of the changes that come from Brussels.

Mr Molloy:

Thank you for the presentation, Sean. What is the difference between the two bodies on which you served? Is there a mechanism in the Assembly or elsewhere to which you report? Do you have any sources that provide you with support or backup when you attend meetings?

Mr Neeson:

Most of the backup comes from the Local Government Association in London, which has a substantial number of staff and provides assistance in releasing information from the congress. However, in this wonderful age of email, I receive much information directly from Strasbourg and am updated regularly on relevant changes.

The other issue is important. I was elected to that position by the Assembly, and, therefore, it would be worthwhile to establish a mechanism whereby I could report back developments in Strasbourg to the Assembly. The next plenary session will be at the start of March.

Mr Molloy:

Does the Local Government Association in London have any ties with NILGA in providing advice or support?

Mr Neeson:

NILGA helped to organise the joint meeting of the UK and Irish members of the Committee of the Regions and the congress’s meeting in Belfast in 2008. Moreover, the Speaker facilitated a dinner at Stormont for all members, which was greatly appreciated.

The Chairperson:

Does the congress have a formal link with NILGA other than that one-off conference?

Mr Neeson:

I am a member of a NILGA committee that deals with European affairs. It meets fairly regularly, but comprises mainly councillors. I am the only MLA who attends the meetings.

Mrs Long:

Thank you for the presentation. Francie Molloy has asked my question about mechanisms for reporting back to the Assembly, and Sean has already answered it. You mentioned that issue in your presentation, and it should be considered.

Mr Shannon:

From where do you source your information in order to ensure that you have a perspective of the views of all political parties? You mentioned that your role is advisory. When you gather that information, to whom do you submit it? What is your relationship with other regions on issues of mutual interest? You are aware of issues that are important to Northern Ireland because you live here, but other areas might want to pursue similar issues.

Mr Neeson:

The relationships with other regions are generally good, because committee meetings are held in diverse places. For example, the previous meeting of the committee on sustainable development was held in St Petersburg. It was almost impossible to obtain a visa, and that is a problem with scheduling meetings in remote regions.

Mr Shannon:

If you were a football fan, you would have probably got there more quickly.

The Chairperson:

You have been on more planes than Judith Chalmers.

Mr Neeson:

Much of the information is gathered through the Local Government Association, which does a wonderful job in keeping members abreast of what is happening. Furthermore, it assists with organising accommodation, and so on.

Ms Anderson:

You must feel isolated by the lack of direction or accountability, and your personal political outlook might influence any advice that you give. As you have been appointed by the Assembly, I am sure that you would appreciate a better connection. An MLA who is not a councillor would not have the connections with NILGA that you do.

I want to ask about connectivity with other ongoing European activity and initiatives. Bairbre de Brún mentioned the European Grouping for Territorial Cooperation (EGTC). My limited understanding of that grouping is that it is designed to facilitate and promote greater cross-border relationships and co-operation, and that councils, public bodies and others — on both sides of the border —can participate in that grouping. If that were to be implemented would it have a legal framework, and is that the sort of activity that your organisation would examine? It would be a congress for local councils and could ensure greater co-operation, and it could also ensure that initiatives take place, on a cross-border basis, during the current economic downturn. After all, Europe has told us that those who live adjacent to borders are more like to be deprived, because of the impact that borders have on people.

Does your organisation simply give advice, or does it also connect with other activities that could relate to what you do?

Mr Neeson:

In relation to advice, the UK members work collectively on that. They also work closely with the Irish delegation as well, which I think is very important.

The committee on sustainable development deals strongly with environmental issues and improvement. It is difficult at times, bearing in mind that some of the emerging countries do not have the same levels of environmental standards that exist here. However, unlike the system here there are rapporteurs that are drawn from the elected members. They draw up a report and that report is brought to the plenary session of the congress. If the report is passed by the congress it is then passed to the Council of Europe for consideration. Bearing in mind the extent of the membership of the Council of Europe, which is much larger than the EU, it has a more widespread effect on attempts to influence countries to adopt policies on issues such as the environment.

The institutional committee has been fairly controversial in recent times. One of the countries that it has engaged with is Georgia, and it has taken an active role in the oversight of elections there. The reports that have come back continuously from Georgia demonstrate that its democracy is not that democratic at all. Therefore, that committee helps to expose countries that are not adhering to the democratic principles to which we adhere.

Mr Moutray:

Sean, you are very welcome. What relationship, if any, exists between your organisation and the Committee of the Regions? Is there any interaction?

Mr Neeson:

The only relationship that we have is through the annual meeting of the UK and Irish representatives of the Committee of the Regions and the congress. At those meetings we deal with current issues in the Committee of the Regions and the congress. It is a very worthwhile vehicle, and I was delighted that they came to Northern Ireland last year. The important thing is that the UK and the Irish delegations meet together, demonstrating the form of co-operation that exists between the two countries, and the last meeting, which I was unable to attend, was held two weeks ago. Those meetings are worthwhile and represent good, genuine co-operation between the members of the Committee of the Regions and the congress.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation, Sean, and for the clarity of your answers. If you have any additional information that you want to provide, or if the Committee require clarification, we will be in contact with you. Furthermore, when the Committee publishes its report we will ensure that you receive a copy.

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