Official Report (Hansard)
Date: 10 June 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
Mr Pat Colgan, Special EU Programmes Body
The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):
Our first evidence session is with Pat Colgan, chief executive of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB).
I should declare an interest as chairperson of the Good Relations Partnership for Belfast, although I will leave the post at the end of June.
I welcome Pat Colgan. As you know, the Committee is conducting an inquiry into European matters and how best we can develop our role in and with Europe. The session will be recorded by Hansard for inclusion in our report. I invite you to make an opening statement, after which members will ask questions. The session should last approximately 30 minutes.
Mr Pat Colgan (Special EU Programmes Body):
Thank you for the invitation. The paper that I have provided is a general statement about the role of the Special EU Programmes Body. Of course, I have not told the Committee anything that it does not already know. I did not provide a detailed breakdown of the individual programmes for which we are responsible. I thought that I would leave it open to the members to ask questions, and I am happy to provide any supplementary information to the Committee, such as detailed reports, and so on. Given our extensive amount of data, I was unsure about what to include.
I will not take too much time with the general introduction. Our principal areas of responsibility are for two programmes: the Peace programme and the INTERREG programme. The Peace programme is now in its third generation. SEUPB did not exist at the time of Peace I. It was around for Peace II and is now responsible for Peace III. The INTERREG programmes are into their fourth generation. Both programmes are funded under the third objective of the EU cohesion policy, which is European territorial co-operation. They are funded from a single fund this time around, namely the European regional development fund (ERDF). Peace II was a multi-fund programme that was funded from the ERDF, the European social fund (ESF), the European agricultural guidance and guarantee fund (EAGGF) and the European fisheries fund (EFF). However, the current programmes are mono-funded; they are all funded by the ERDF.
They are sister programmes in that they are covered by the same EU regulation, which covers cross-border co-operation and the ERDF. However, they are of a very different nature. The Peace programme has specific derogations in the EU regulations to enable it to achieve its aims. In particular, it enables the programme to engage in activities that aim to promote cohesion between communities. The INTERREG programme is a standard EU cross-border territorial co-operation programme, and there are almost 70 such programmes throughout Europe in the 27 member states. Therefore, the programme is not unique. However, the Peace programme is unique. There is only one, and there has only ever been one, Peace programme — the Peace programme for Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland.
One feature of the new programme that I want to bring to the Committee’s attention and about which it may wish to ask questions is the commitment to share the experience of the Peace programme with other regions and cities in Europe that may have experienced conditions or circumstances that are similar to those that we have experienced. We want to share our experience of using structural funds to address such circumstances. That process is ongoing, and we call it the Peace network. The programme has many other features with which the Committee will be familiar. I see many familiar faces around the table who know me and our programmes well. Therefore, it is probably best to allow members to establish the direction of questioning. Thank you for your attention.
Thank you; that is helpful. Given that the Peace programme is unique, are you satisfied that an independent assessment has been carried out with sufficient rigour to ensure that the money has been wisely spent, particularly on programmes to improve community relations? It appears that other regions that have benefited greatly from European money have spent it in different ways. I am thinking of the Irish Republic in particular, which has improved its road networks and infrastructure considerably. We seem to have spent large amounts of money at a community level. Has anyone made an assessment of whether that was the best approach and whether we should stick with it if the funding continues?
It is important to distinguish between the Peace programme and other EU-funded programmes that exist in Northern Ireland. Members are all familiar with the Building Sustainable Prosperity (BSP) programme, which was part of the overall community support framework for Northern Ireland. That included a lot of regional development moneys that were aimed at infrastructure, enterprise, tourism and a whole range of different areas associated with the general concept of regional development. That programme is very similar to the kind of programme that was managed in the Republic, to which you have referred. They would have done the same or similar things.
INTERREG is another programme that engages in exactly the same sort of promotion of the economy or the economic social structure for the generation of wealth and the improvement of co-operation at the borders for the good of the communities that live there. They are straightforward economic programmes, and they are very similar to those in the Republic. The vast majority of the money that has come here from the EU has come through that funding programme.
The unique aspect of the Peace programme is that it was trying to do something with structural funds that those funds were not originally intended to do, which was to address the problems, issues and challenges of a region emerging from a conflict situation. Peace I and Peace II had a very strong element of rebuilding and reconstruction. There is plenty of evidence of the legacy of the Peace programmes around Northern Ireland and the border counties in the development of the physical infrastructure. They also contained an element of developing relationships across the border and between communities. That became more accentuated in the Peace II extension from 2004 to 2006, and the current programme, Peace III, has taken a very strong line in trying to address those very difficult elements that remain in the relationships between our communities.
You asked about an evaluation and external assessment to determine whether the money has been used wisely. There are two points to note: first, a meticulous approach is taken to the design of those kinds of programmes. They must be agreed with the European Commission and the member states concerned and the procedural process that they have to go through is very rigorous and demanding. That process includes the identification in advance of indicators of success, thereby setting out how one will know whether the programme has worked. That is a feature of all EU-funded programmes, and it has been a feature of the programmes that we are talking about.
Secondly, there is a built-in structure for monitoring and evaluating those programmes that takes them out of the hands of those who have been directly responsible for their implementation. An independent, external audit — both qualitative and quantitative — is conducted of the efficiency and effectiveness of the programme, which checks whether the indicators of success that were identified have been achieved. Therefore, a system is in place to ensure that that happens.
A programme such as the Peace programme generates an awful lot of debate within society as to how else the funds could have been used. An enormous amount of consultation was undertaken on the design of the programme, particularly the current programme. We had well over 100 written submissions. We met over 300 people in events all around the country; we listened, talked and issued drafts — and further drafts — for discussion. Eventually, it was approved in Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland Executive and in Dublin by the Dublin Government. That is our blueprint; that is what we work to.
Thank you for coming along, Pat. As a unionist representative, one of my concerns about European funding over the years is that the moneys do not filter down to the unionist communities in the way that they should. I suspect that other members may agree. How can that matter be better addressed to ensure that the moneys filter down? Also, some applicants are put off by the mountain of paperwork that must be climbed over to access the money. I have always tried to encourage, as have other members, our communities to take advantage of what is available, including the current Peace III funding. I am keen to find out how we can ensure that people are not put off by the system’s paperwork and bureaucracy, or red tape, so that they can take advantage of the moneys that could help their communities to grow and overcome some of the problems and stagnation that have developed over the years.
You raised two important points: the extent to which the Protestant/loyalist communities are involved in the programme and what we are doing to help them; and the bureaucracy that is associated with EU funds.
I hold the issue of Protestant/loyalist involvement close to my heart, because we have tried to do something about that in the past five years since my arrival at SEUPB. We commissioned various reports and studies. We carry out a community uptake analysis, which is an extremely rigorous evaluation methodology, to try to determine the true participation levels in the North. We monitored that over time. We carried out three analyses, each of which showed a gradual improvement.
The problem has been that the Protestant community lacks the propensity to apply for funding and the capacity to absorb it. It is unable to organise itself in such a way that it can receive the money and ensure that it gets to those in the community. However, we have put a great deal of effort into reaching out to the Protestant communities to build up their capacity to absorb, and that has paid off.
However, there are still pockets in those communities that we have not reached. We carried out gap analysis on, for example, former members of the security forces and hard-to-reach loyalist working class areas. We also carried out general gap analysis on the kind of groupings that exist and the type of action that we can take. When we are carrying out the analysis, we put in place measures to try to reach in to those groupings at the same time. It is an ongoing challenge that I take seriously.
Bureaucracy is part and parcel of my life as a programme manager. In the past three or four years, I have been through approximately 45 different audits. There is an obsession or paranoia with EU moneys that comes from the Delors period of administration in which people became terribly nervous about the inappropriate use of EU moneys. The European Court of Auditors stamped its authority and put the European Commission under tremendous pressure to ensure that strong regulations were in place and that strong control mechanisms existed to ensure that the money was fully accounted for.
As a result, our life is extremely complex because we must account for and track every single cent and be able to verify 100% that it was spent on the purpose for which it was intended. Unfortunately, that sometimes leads to bureaucracy, and it is one of the reasons why we restructured the current programme in such a way that we now work with lead partners that are bigger organisations. In particular, we work with the local authorities, and we give them more responsibility and more money. Therefore, those are the bodies that we audit. As public bodies they have the confidence and capacity that is lacking in small groups, and they should be responsible for dispersing the money to the smaller groups. That was the logic behind the restructuring of the programme.
I have worked in EU programmes for over 20 years, and bureaucracy is not something from which we can easily get away. To be honest, it is part and parcel of the job. We try to deal with it, but the secret is ensuring that bureaucracy is where it belongs, which is at the level of public or public-equivalent bodies. Rather than imposing bureaucracy on small community groups that simply cannot deal with it, we should give responsibility to public bodies that have the necessary competence, responsibility and capacity.
I echo Jim’s concern about the bureaucracy. One thing that switches people off Europe generally is that it is regarded as extremely bureaucratic and unwieldy, and people’s experience of interfacing with the Peace Programme funding has reinforced that perception. Anything that relieves some of that burden of bureaucracy would create a more positive view of Europe.
We are looking at how the Assembly should engage with the European Union structures. In your experience of delivering programmes, have you observed any gaps in how the Assembly, MPs and structures in Europe engage with one another, and did those gaps impede your work on issues such as Peace funding? Can you identify areas where you have found gaps? That is what we are focused on.
Do you mean gaps in the institutions of the European Union?
I mean gaps in our engagement with those institutions.
The work of the EU Northern Ireland task force was extremely helpful in identifying some of the challenges that Northern Ireland faces in its engagement with the EU and the European Commission in particular. There is a series of actions in the task force report, which, if acted on properly, will improve enormously Northern Ireland’s profile and ability to take full advantage of its presence in Europe. There is a good programme of work in the report.
The Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels has become a centre of some competence in addressing the problems across the various institutions. Over the years, I have seen that office mature into a place where one can get good advice, help and facilities, and it has been extremely helpful to us.
Apart from the member states, our primary point of contact as a managing authority is the European Commission, with which we have direct dealings. We have never had any difficulty in our relationship with the Commission. We regularly engage with MEPs on issues that affect their constituencies as well those that are raised in the European Parliament. The European Parliament has conducted its own study of the use of funding.
The European Economic and Social Committee is an organ of the EU with which we have engaged, and it has done its own analysis of what has happened to EU funds in Northern Ireland. That has been a productive engagement. I also have direct links with the Committee of the Regions, which is an organisation that is developing its confidence and capacity, and it is promoting issues such as European groupings for territorial co-operation.
Those are the sort of organs with which we have contact. We find that dealing with such a mix is a challenge but having the use of the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels has been very helpful. The report of the EU Northern Ireland task force is a very good place to start in developing a programme of activity.
Thank you, Pat. I was simply going to ask what you do, but I will develop the question a wee bit. Are you anything more than a conduit for money that comes from Europe and is distributed to other organisations? Who decided that council clusters should deliver Peace III money? On the occasions that I told you about organisations that had problems with delivery, you said that you could not do anything because they are almost masters of their own destiny. I am trying to tease out the role of the SEUPB and find out how much responsibility and power it has.
In a nutshell, we are policy implementers and policy advisors. For example, in the design of programmes, SEUPB was the leader in examining options for the content and delivery mechanisms of particular programmes. We consult widely, make recommendations to the two member states and engage in discussions with them. After that, we change, draft and implement the agreed structures. Therefore, we have an opportunity to influence how things are done.
Tom referred to the council clusters that are involved in Peace III funding. It was intended that the configuration of those clusters would be driven by the review of public administration (RPA), which, as members know, took quite a long time to emerge. In order to ensure that we did not lose any more time and that the money would not be lost, we ended up asking the councils to form voluntary clusters rather than imposing a structure on them. No sooner had they done that and had their plans ready than the ultimate configuration of councils was published, but it was not really timely for us; we did not have the time to reconfigure to match the RPA. I gave them the option to have them reconsidered this year, but we are currently in discussion with them and quite a lot of activity is going on.
I think that Mr Elliott is specifically referring to some of the issues concerning the cross-border partnership groups in the INTERREG programme. They have a legal structure of their own, and some of the decisions that they take on the nomination of people to certain roles and functions are outside my control. I have dealt with them as implementing bodies. The member state would have informed me that they are the implementing bodies with which we should deal. I cannot influence what they do within their own organisations or structures. I can influence what they do in relation to the implementation of the programme, but I cannot tell them how to run their own business. However, I have control over any bodies that we create as a result of the programme structures.
Mr Elliott asked what we in the SEUPB do. We are a conduit for, and the minders of, the money. We are policy advisers, so we are also programme designers. We design, implement, monitor, evaluate and account for the money. At the end of the day, I am the accounting officer, so I will be held personally responsible for that money in the audits.
Mrs D Kelly:
Thanks, Pat. As I understand it, this session is part of our EU evidence programme. You are also responsible for the INTERREG funding. Is there a way in which we can better exploit the opportunities that are available to the people and communities here so that they can get maximum benefit from European funding initiatives? Are there any gaps in provision? Do you have any knowledge of the take-up of the INTERREG funding here, in Scotland and in the Republic of Ireland?
You asked about gaps in provision and opportunities to benefit from INTERREG funding. Since I arrived at SEUPB, I have been saying that there are opportunities within the transnational and the inter-regional programmes, and we have made progress in that regard. Those transnational programmes involve big zones that have been identified throughout Europe. For Northern Ireland, we are talking about three programmes. The first programme covers the north-west Europe area, which includes part of Germany, the northern part of France and all of the UK and Ireland. Quite a significant amount of money — about €600 million — has been allocated to co-operation within that zone, which could be of great interest to Northern Ireland. Our organisation has a person who is dedicated to promoting North/South co-operation and taking advantage of opportunities in that area. We have a target of having in place about 50 projects within those zones.
Another programme is the Atlantic area programme, which covers the whole Atlantic area, stretching from the top of Scotland right down to the tip of Portugal. It deals with co-operation on issues associated with being on a maritime Atlantic coast. Close to €200 million has been allocated for that programme, and the managing authorities are in Portugal. Again, we have somebody who is dedicated to promoting co-operation in that area.
The northern periphery programme deals with the third zone, the sparsely populated parts of northern peripheral Europe. It deals with issues of access and service provision in low-populated areas, island communities and so on. Again, we have somebody who is promoting co-operation in that area.
Those are the three specific programmes. Northern Ireland and Ireland do not have a great tradition of participating in them, but the situation is improving. We have set down some targets to try to ensure that take-up is better. Another programme, the inter-regional programme, is Europe-wide. It is basically about exchanging best practice. Belfast City Council has done some excellent work in that area and has led on quite a number of very good projects, but more opportunities are available.
The current round of funding finishes in 2013. That seems a long way away, but we will probably start planning for that at the end of next year. A debate is taking place in the EU — I do not know how involved the Committee is in that — on the future shape of structural funds and, in particular, on the topic of territorial cohesion. We have moved away from territorial co-operation, which deals with just the borders, to territorial cohesion, which looks more at issues of common significance to wider geographic regions in Europe, such as transport, access and how the configuration of the geography of an area might affect service delivery. The concept of territorial cohesion is an interesting one. A Green Paper on the issue was put on the table, and some interesting debates have taken place on that. I do not how much Northern Ireland is engaged in that; however, it presents an opportunity.
Mrs D Kelly:
I am interested to know what applications have been submitted. I take it that the Government and individual Departments can make bids, too. I do not think that those opportunities have been taken up.
It would be helpful to get a sense of that.
Do you want me to send the Committee a report on where we are with that?
I will do that.
Mrs D Kelly:
Will you also send us the contact numbers of the individuals whom you mentioned?
In our organisation, Teresa Lennon, whom some of you might know, is responsible for that matter.
Thank you, Pat, for your opening remarks. Picking up on what Dolores Kelly said, will you give us a sense of how the move from the Territorial Cooperation to territorial cohesion is going and what opportunities that is likely to present? Obviously, I am looking at this in an all-Ireland context, as is Dolores.
In the application for funding through the INTERREG IVa programme for Project Kelvin, three or four specific references were made to the fact that the telehouse was to be “situated in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland”. Therefore, will you explain why, when the contract went out to tender, there was a possibility that the telehouse could have been located elsewhere? That would have been the case had public representatives and the people of Derry not responded in the manner in which they did.
Barry McElduff, whose mother, God rest her, died yesterday, has previously raised concerns that he was being lobbied about in his area. The Special EU Programmes Body asked the Centre for Cross Border Studies and the north-west regional cross-border bodies to prepare a multi-annual plan that was to be submitted for approval. Apparently, different formats of those plans were submitted to DFP, and that created problems. It appears, according to the organisations that are trying to draw down the money, that it a case of one side blaming the other. DFP was not happy. Barry is conscious that the poor advice that has been given to those cross-border groups in the development of their plans might affect their chances of receiving money.
You raised three points, which I am happy to address. The Commission produced a Green Paper on territorial cohesion, which was put out for consultation, and I believe that that consultation has now concluded. I know that papers were submitted from Northern Ireland via the UK Government through a centralised process. Several in-depth debates, seminars, conferences and programmes have been taking place around Europe. It might be worthwhile for the Committee to consider whether it wants to get involved in some of those discussions. They focus on questions about what territorial cohesion actually means and how it applies to the design of the new round of structural funds programmes. It is not really for me to answer those questions; rather, those are policy issues for member states to consider when deciding what position to take. It is a fascinating subject in which to be involved.
Project Kelvin is an extraordinary and wonderful project that will bring amazing opportunities to the whole region. It is great that €30 million was made available through the INTERREG IVa programme for such an important infrastructure project. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) worked on the project alongside the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resource, with DETI taking the lead on it. It is a highly technical project and not one in which our organisation has any competence or remit. As a managing authority, we do not have an opinion or a view on the technical issues concerning the location of the telehouse. It is our role to facilitate, and it is for the Department to take the lead. The Department managed the entire tendering process and the appointment of the consultant and the people who are responsible for the project’s implementation. It is not my role to tell the Department where it should or should not locate something.
Is it not misleading, to be polite, to apply for the project, state where the telehouse will be located and then change that location?
The project design involved a commitment to provide a certain amount of money for a particular infrastructure-type project. The SEUPB does not have any competence in the technical elements of the project. We are not involved in the rolling out of the project because we simply do not know anything about it. We merely provide the money and ensure that the project is undertaken properly. We leave the running of the project to DETI, which has its own team that is responsible for it. I do not mean to kick your point into touch, Martina, but I have no hand, act or part in the operation of the project.
I think that the multi-annual plans have gone very well. We have five interesting and exciting multi-annual plans on the table, and those will be developed in other areas. We have made a lot of progress in rolling out those plans, and you are correct that different approaches are being taken in different areas. The north-west did it one way, and the north-east, which is a new grouping, did it another way. The east border region and the Irish Central Border Area Network (ICBAN) had one approach, and COMET took another approach that focused on specific projects. We decided not to impose a single approach on the groups. We provided general guidelines on what we wanted, but we allowed each area to take its own approach. The multi-annual plans have been approved as framework programmes, and the individual components can now be rolled out.
A significant amount of money has been committed to the project, and over the next couple of months we will undertake active and intense engagement to ensure that the implementation hits the ground quickly. We have time because, thankfully, Project Kelvin will take up a large part of our spending capacity for this year. The projects will hit the ground later this year and early next year, and some interesting things will happen.
I am committed to the cross-border groups, and, over the next couple of months, I will do as I have always done; I will get them together to assess where we are, what issues have arisen and what the next steps should be. There are always problems, and discussion around a table is the best way to work through the difficulties.
Thank you for the presentation, Pat. Over the years, we have found that programmes are not designed to meet the needs of the area concerned. Indeed, groups often realign applications to meet the needs of the programme rather than the needs of the area. Could a better approach be taken in future? One of the aims of the Committee’s inquiry is to work out how to engage better at an early stage rather than try to engage at the final stage. You talked about the centralised response from Westminster. Consultation with the Assembly has been very limited in the past, but, hopefully, it will improve in the future. What is the best way to engage at an early stage to ensure that the new programmes meet the needs of an area rather than the needs of Westminster or somewhere else?
We started designing the current suite of programmes in 2006. We circulated a lot of discussion papers, and we met hundreds of people. Was it Martina or Dolores who asked me to provide an update on where we are in relation to Scotland?
Mrs D Kelly:
It was me.
I think that well over 10% or 15% of the programmes will go to Scotland, and there has already been a lot of commitment in that regard. We went to Scotland to discuss their ideas, and a rich vein of project ideas and concepts emerged from those discussions. We undertook extensive consultation in Northern Ireland and the border regions. I could give you chapter and verse on that. We did not appear before this Committee; were you here then?
We would have welcomed that: it would have been a great opportunity to sit down with you at the design stage of the programme and explain how we go about things. We engaged with the Committee for Finance and Personnel, but the more engagement and openness we have at this level, the better it will be for us all. I will be happy to come and talk to you about it at any time. As we approach the next round of funding, we will be happy to appear before the Committee again to tell you all about our plans and to take your views and advice about what you might want to do.
The programmes are predicated on the basis that they must meet the needs of the region. They are subject to ex ante evaluations and socio-economic reviews, which provide detailed analyses of needs. The programmes are run through the policy machinery to determine policy priorities and whether they meet the stated needs. It is very much a policy formulation process; it does not sit out outside the general policy formulation machinery. It is unfortunate that this Committee was not in existence at the time, but the process goes to the heart of the way in which policy is made; it is not outside that. I take your point: there will always be people who will feel that certain programmes do not meet the need, and there can be difficulties.
Is there anything in the pipeline that is at the first design stage and which would allow the Committee to become involved?
The new programmes will begin post-2013. They take about two and a half years to design and prepare. We started the current programmes in 2006; they were finally approved at the end of 2007, and we rolled them out in 2008. The two-year design timetable takes in policy consultation and the formal machinery of policy development and implementation. Following that, the programmes have to be agreed by the two member states, so the Northern Ireland Executive will obviously be involved.
Perhaps that could be put in the diary for the next mandate.
That completes our questions. Thank you for your presentation. We look forward to receiving additional information from you.
Could Pat send us a list of the organisations with which the SEUPB works and to which it provides policy advice and funding?
That would include, for example, all the Government Departments that we get money from.
And who you provide it to.