Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 12 November 2008

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

Witnesses:

Ms Evelyn Cummins ) Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister 
Dr Paul Geddis )

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

The Committee welcomes Ms Evelyn Cummins, director of the European division of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), and Mr Maurice Maxwell, head of the European Commission’s office in Belfast. Mr Maxwell is a recent appointee, and we congratulate him on that. They are here to give evidence regarding our consideration of European issues. The Clerk’s brief highlights areas that members may wish to raise with Evelyn and Maurice, and members have a copy of the Committee’s action plan in respect of EU issues; a copy of the research paper on EU offices of regional legislatures; a copy of the summary of the Barroso task force report on Northern Ireland; and written submissions from Ms Cummins and Mr Maxwell. I advise members that this session is being recorded by Hansard.

Ms Evelyn Cummins (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

Hello, everyone. I have met a few of the members of the Committee, particularly on an occasion in June, when a delegation visited Brussels and was facilitated by our office in an exploratory visit and meetings on European issues generally and also on the ongoing work in relation to the European Commission’s task force on Northern Ireland. That was known as the Barroso task force, mainly because it was created following an announcement by the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, when he visited Northern Ireland in 2007.

I will not go through the details of my paper, but instead highlight a few issues. My colleague, Paul Geddis, whom I should have introduced first, is known to Committee members, both in the context of the visit to Brussels and in the context of briefing work on the Lisbon Treaty that he has done previously for the Committee.

The Chairperson:

On the Committee’s behalf, I want to record publicly our appreciation for all of the assistance that you gave us on that visit. We found it informative and useful.

Ms Cummins:

Thank you, Chairman. I will pass that on.

Our submission outlines the role of the European division in OFMDFM, how it is divided and what its specific functions are. As I said, I will not go into the details of that. However, we are happy to take specific questions on any aspect of our business.

I want to mention the context in which we operate with regard to constraints and opportunities. Paragraph 4 describes our formal links with the UK’s permanent representation to the EU (UKRep), which is primarily to do with UK policy on European matters. We work closely with them, as our colleagues in various Departments in the Northern Ireland Administration do with their various Whitehall and other UK colleagues, in the formulation, development and monitoring of UK policy on EU matters. Therefore, our presence in Brussels helps to strengthen those working links, gives us early access to information and enables us to advise and relay to the Northern Ireland Administration the proposals that come from Europe so that we can be guided by them on their priorities and the implications for policy in Northern Ireland.

In that context, we also have links, which are slightly less formal but equally important, with Scotland and Wales. The division in Belfast, as members are aware, works closely with other Departments to monitor various aspects of European business and also in working links with many of Northern Ireland’s representatives in Europe.

Moving on to the strategic approach to Europe, I know that there is particular interest in the work of the task force. Members are aware that the task force completed its report in April. I am sure that members have had an opportunity to study the content of that report, which is, essentially, a stocktake of Northern Ireland’s position with regard to Europe — its level of engagement and how it has benefited from and used European moneys, particularly structural funds. It is also an outline of other opportunities and recommendations on the extent to which Northern Ireland can maximise those opportunities in the future. Under the leadership of our two junior Ministers, we are formulating a response to the report. At this point, it is not complete. Therefore, I will not be able to discuss its contents. It is not yet a complete document approved by the Executive. However, it is moving in that direction.

There many other ways in which Northern Ireland has adopted, and continues to adopt, a strategic approach to Europe. That comes through individual Departments as well as by this Department in particular, through the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, which is attended by the Department’s junior Ministers. If members wish, I can talk about the sorts of policy areas that are discussed in that Committee.

The task force, its report, and — in all likelihood — our response to the report will contain actions across a very wide range of devolved policy areas, and those are obviously of interest to this Committee. However, as the Committee is probably aware, the broad themes are: enhancing European engagement; making the best use of competitive funding; raising the profile of Northern Ireland; and making and strengthening beneficial links with other regions in Europe.

The overall context of the task force and our response to it will be the Programme for Government and the Lisbon strategy — Europe’s strategy for jobs and growth.

The Chairperson:

Thank you. ‘Taking Our Place in Europe’ seems to be the strategic document from which you are working. What are the practical outworkings of that? Do you find it useful in ensuring that individual Departments in this Administration play a proactive part in Europe?

Ms Cummins:

I would not say otherwise, since Dr Geddis very much led the work with the other Departments of developing the strategy, which was published in 2006. The document has formed a very useful baseline from which to develop a more detailed and action-based strategy that will form part of the work on the task force.

It was, and is, an overarching document that highlights opportunities, contacts and the various links and responsibilities in European affairs. It also highlights those who could play a useful part in the Taking Our Place in Europe strategy, without making specific recommendations.

Dr Paul Geddis (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

Taking Our Place in Europe was a direct rule strategy that continued into the period of devolution, and it was sent to Ministers at that point. It was always the intention that the strategy would contain a detailed action plan. However — as the Committee is aware — President Barroso visited Northern Ireland on 1 May 2007, before the new devolved Administration took office, and offered the services of his task force working group.

As a consequence, work on the implementation plan for the strategy was put on hold until we understood how our response to the Commission’s stocktake would develop, and how that could then be related to the strategy. That is our current position. The Taking Our Place in Europe strategy concludes in 2010, so once we have understood the Executive’s response to Barroso’s proposals, it may then be time to re-examine the strategy.

Mr Shannon:

As you probably expected, I have a few questions.

The Chairperson:

You surprise me.

Mr Shannon:

At our meeting in Brussels in June, the Committee suggested ideas to strengthen the relationship between the Assembly and the Brussels office. Has there been any further contact to develop those ideas? The Committee was concerned that decisions taken in Brussels take a long time to filter through to the Assembly, at which point it is too late for us to become involved.

Are local councils contacted about European legislation? Given that the review of public administration will establish a smaller group of councils, such a relationship will, perhaps, be easier to achieve in future. Have you made any inroads on that matter?

Ms Cummins:

The points that the Committee made during its visit to Brussels were well taken. I understand from the Committee’s action plan that European issues will become a regular feature of its work, and that in itself will help to establish those beneficial links. Furthermore, when the Committee contacts the European division — or any other division in the Administration — to discuss European matters, a relationship will start to be established.

There is also the opportunity to form links with Northern Ireland’s representatives in Europe. On your Brussels visit, you did that by meeting the MEPs. However, Northern Ireland also has representatives on the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee. There is, probably, more scope to conduct work, share information and exchange views. Such measures will enhance working relationships and have the potential to create positive results for Northern Ireland.

There is considerable involvement at local government level. Belfast City Council has the most active and diverse interest in European policy, and, during my time — and probably before — it has been involved in several worthwhile projects, through which it has made strong linkages. Local government representatives play an important role in raising Northern Ireland’s profile through, for example, European open days, and so on. Officials benefit from and contribute to such initiatives.

Mr Shannon:

During our discussions, we considered education and how to encourage students to go to Brussels. Have you made any headway on that issue?

I want to focus on the big issue of funding opportunities as legislative changes are enacted. We want to be more aware of those matters and learn how the Assembly and the Committee can promote that. The Committee is energised and is eager to address that matter.

Have you decided on a new location for the office in Brussels? During our visit, you mentioned that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have direct contact with your branch. You suggested that the Assembly should consider establishing a similar relationship. Have you had any discussions with the First Minister or the deputy First Minister? I am sorry for talking for so long.

Ms Cummins:

I have not had any discussions with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister about links between you and the Scottish and Welsh legislatures. I am not sure that I was supposed to. I should be more than happy to —

Mr Shannon:

The figure of £100,000 was mentioned as the cost of setting up one member of staff to work in that office. Is that correct?

Ms Cummins:

I am not sure. I do not have that information, but I can easily obtain it and report back to the Committee, if that would be helpful.

You asked about promoting opportunities for students, and that is a regular feature of our role. We are keen to encourage more students to participate in study programmes. Delegations from the two Northern Ireland universities and the agricultural colleges have visited our offices, as have delegations from Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. An increasing number of civil servants — if you allow me to call them students — are coming to Brussels to study the European institutions.

Mr Shannon:

They are a different age group — is that what you are saying?

Ms Cummins:

Yes. We could work to enhance that.

We should be happy to be guided by the Committee as to the range of information that it would like us to provide. We could discuss that and agree an approach as part of our working relationship with the Committee.

I am rushing through these answers, because I think that Mr Shannon has probably exceeded his quota of questions.

Mr Shannon:

I am not even looking at the Chairman.

The Chairperson:

If you did, you would see my glares.

Ms Cummins:

We have found new offices. We have not yet secured them, but we have submitted a bid and a business case, which are in the system, and we hope that they will be favourably received. We would not have chosen to move to new offices, but it is something that we must do. Location is a priority as far as our work is concerned, and we are doing out best to secure affordable premises as soon as possible next year.

Mr Shannon:

So, the rapporteur jobs are still there?

Ms Cummins:

The matter is under active consideration.

The Chairperson:

Now, Mr Moutray, are there any outstanding questions that Mr Shannon has ignored or overlooked?

Mr Moutray:

I am not sure whether my question was answered in the melee, but I will attempt to ask it again. I was not able to visit Brussels with the Committee, but having heard the comments from the Chairperson and my colleagues, I definitely feel that I missed out. Perhaps I will get the opportunity at another time.

You talked about the close links that your office has with the offices of the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government in Brussels. Have you picked up any examples of good practice? We obviously lag considerably behind other places. Have you detected an enthusiasm within the Assembly to work on European issues?

Ms Cummins:

The first question is, perhaps, a bit easier to answer. I can cite two policy areas in which the Scottish Government’s office has been very active and has shared good practice. One area is better regulation — the simplification of EU matters, particularly for the benefit of business. The other area is higher education, which, in particular, involves work to stimulate the development of research and innovation projects. Both Scotland and Wales have also been particularly good at staging high-profile events on culture and arts. I must admit that we have some way to go to catch up.

Mr Spratt:

During our visit to Brussels, Committee members were struck by the amount of networking that takes place, and we discussed that at the time. Some MEPs said that the South, Scotland and Wales and other Governments had established very good networking systems, but suggested that Northern Ireland might be lagging behind to a degree. I asked some questions about that at the time. You mentioned the universities — some of them have permanent staff in Brussels for networking purposes. They can tap into funds for research and all sorts of other projects. You also said that some universities had already visited your office. With research and development in mind, have any of the universities, particularly Queen’s and the University of Ulster, indicated a desire to set up a permanent network in order to tap into money over there?

Before I came into the meeting, I briefly scanned an article in today’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’ about a substantial clawback of European money for regeneration projects — some £42 million. Do you have any comment to make on that? It seems to stretch back to the 1990s.

Ms Cummins:

It would not be wise for me to comment on that, because I did not come prepared with the details. I am not in a position to enlighten you any further. I am aware of it, however, and, if members are interested, I will ask my colleagues in the Department of Finance and Personnel to provide the Committee with a review of that situation, with particular emphasis on the Northern Ireland dimension.

Mr Spratt:

It is something that we should have on our agenda. The Committee staff are going to find that article for me. If that amount of money is involved, we should be keen to examine the situation and determine what has happened.

Ms Cummins:

We have an equivalent network to our colleagues in Wales and Scotland, and would probably be able to draw on the same range of contacts and influencers as others. You have made a pertinent point about the universities and about presence in Brussels. Our presence in Brussels amounts to our small team plus two Invest Northern Ireland consultants, who work on inward investment. We do not have a presence in relation to other policy areas.

As far as the universities are concerned, a delegation from Queen’s will be going out to Brussels next week to discuss research opportunities, but visits by the universities have largely comprised groups of students rather than university personnel. We are strong on networking, but less so in having a critical mass of people in Brussels. That is something that will inevitably come out of our work on the task force report and our future strategy.

Dr Geddis:

The Department, and the European policy and co-ordination unit in particular, has administered a Peace II networking measure worth £7 million from the 2000-06 programme, which supported 22 projects, including cross-border projects. Considerable networking experience exists in the region and in the Department in how to create substantive networks that last over time. It is a question of building on that, and seeing the networking as something that develops into partnerships as it evolves. There is considerable technical experience in creating viable networks in Europe and further afield. We commissioned an external evaluation report on that, which was compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers. I will forward it to the Committee.

Mr Spratt:

The clawback of £53 million in European grants for regeneration projects that go back to the 1990s is a serious issue for taxpayers here. It appears that faulty paperwork is to blame, among other issues. I think that we should be asking questions about it. I hope that it will be given urgent priority, given the enormity of the amounts of money that are being discussed. We should request some full reports on what exactly the issues are around this, exactly what the cost will be to the taxpayer in the future, and why it happened.

The Chairperson:

OK. We can request a full report from the Department on the issue. Is that agreed?

Members indicated assent.

Mr Elliott:

One of the main problems that I find, being in a regional Assembly, is that I sometimes do not know where our best lobbying pressure lies. Is it directly to Europe through MEPs, or through Westminster? By way of example, last year, the Agriculture Committee was lobbying for the fishing industry, but our submission had to go through the Department for Environment, Fishing and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). How much pressure do we have as a Committee, or even as an Assembly, in Europe, and what is the most effective way to lobby?

Ms Cummins:

The answer is that it depends on the issue. In fisheries and agriculture matters there are, at official level and in Europe at council and working-group level, arrangements whereby issues, problems and concerns from Northern Ireland are taken on board and factored into negotiations. I imagine that the answer would be broad; I do not think that there is one single answer to that question; it is dependent on what it is that you want to lobby on. There is no getting away from the fact that agriculture and fisheries are dealt with at UK level, and, while we have an Agriculture Minister, and that Minister is able to, and does, come to Europe to attend the Council of Ministers and talk to the respective Commissioners, DEFRA is the lead Department on agriculture and rural affairs and fisheries.

The Chairperson:

Do the other devolved Administrations in the United Kingdom or other regional Assemblies throughout Europe have more of a political presence? It cannot be a permanent political presence, but do they have a semi-permanent one, or do they all rely entirely on officials?

Ms Cummins:

In what regard?

The Chairperson:

In the overview of European issues. How regularly do Scottish or Welsh Ministers attend meetings or briefings? Do you have any sense of that?

Ms Cummins:

Yes. I do not have any figures, but it is safe to say that in the cases of both Scotland and Wales there is a more frequent and regular presence in Brussels — both at ministerial and at senior official level — than there is from Northern Ireland. That is clear. I am not sure of the disparity between us and them. England is different; we can more readily compare ourselves to Scotland and Wales. The exceptions to that rule are agriculture and fisheries. That has always been the case.

Mr Elliott:

Surely that is something that can be built on and improved? I am not criticising, but we should be looking at that and, hopefully, will do so in order to improve matters.

The Chairperson:

EU regulations are generally unpopular by the time they filter down to us. Logic dictates that it might be better to be involved in the framing of EU regulations, rather than getting involved only at the implementation stage, as we usually do. Can you offer advice or a solution to that problem?

Dr Geddis:

It is an important distinction. A European directive enters our parliamentary system when the explanatory memorandum arrives in Westminster. The various Administrations may declare that they have an interest, and that sets in train the transposition process for something that has already been decided. Therefore, if there has been inadequate consultation, it is difficult to change the way in which the proposals will be implemented.

The way to circumvent that is to engage in Europe before the legislation is agreed. In particular, as the European Commission is the only European institution that can bring forward a proposal for legislation, one must work with the Commission’s services and its functionaries as the legislation is being developed and argued through the various working groups in the European Parliament and, in particular, the Council of the European Union. It all comes back to networking and influencing and building alliances. It is also a matter of ensuring that Departments here work closely with their Whitehall counterparts to ensure that our views are taken on board in European-level negotiations, through the Council. Also, those types of issues can be raised at the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, to which we have referred and which our junior Ministers attend.

Mr Spratt:

To return to the matter of money, there is obviously an issue with Europe. Over several years, £680 million has been clawed back, which shows that paperwork, form-filling or something serious has gone wrong. I suppose that we all think that the European Union is an expensive monster to feed. I imagine that such figures are only the tip of the iceberg. What sort of regular controls are placed on schemes, for instance, if someone from Northern Ireland was to apply for European funding? If £700 million is having to be paid back over a period of time, the rules do not appear to be tight enough, frankly. As public servants, we should all be concerned about that and about the cost of feeding the monster called Europe.

Ms Cummins:

A considerable level of control is applied at application, expenditure, monitoring and evaluation levels, both locally and by European auditors. It is not the case that there are no control mechanisms, nor is it the case that those mechanisms are not being applied. However, you asked a fair question; you are talking about a considerable quantum of money, and —

Mr Spratt:

It is an extremely embarrassing figure.

Ms Cummins:

You have asked for a detailed report, and that is fair enough.

The Chairperson:

I thank Ms Cummins and Dr Geddis for attending. No doubt we will be in regular contact.

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