Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, meeting on Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr William Irwin (Chairperson)
Mr S Anderson
Mr K McCarthy
Mr O McMullan
Mr I Milne
Mr Robin Swann


Mrs Colette McMaster, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
Ms Astrid Stuart, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
Ms Louise Warde Hunter, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Rural Needs Bill: DARD Briefing

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): I welcome Louise Warde Hunter, deputy secretary; Colette McMaster, assistant secretary and director of food and farming rural policy; and Astrid Stuart, head of the rural proofing branch. You are all very welcome. I ask you to take up to 10 minutes for your presentation, after which will ask some questions.

Ms Louise Warde Hunter (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development): Thank you very much, Chair. Good afternoon, members of the Committee. We want to use this opportunity to provide a briefing on the Rural Needs Bill prior to its introduction to the Assembly. I understand, Chair, that you have already alerted Committee members to your meeting with the Minister earlier today on this matter. You have already introduced Colette and Astrid; I know that we are familiar to you from work in other areas.

When we last briefed the Committee on 19 May, I outlined the response that we had received to the public consultation on the policy proposals for what was, at that time, referred to as the "rural proofing Bill". I also advised that our next step was to seek the agreement of the Executive to the final policy proposals and the drafting of the Bill. Since our last update to you, the Executive have agreed the final policy proposals at their meeting on 7 July. Following that, we worked with the Departmental Solicitor's Office (DSO) and the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC) to develop the draft Rural Needs Bill.

On 20 October, the First Minister and deputy First Minister agreed that Minister Michelle O'Neill could take an urgent decision to introduce the Bill in the Assembly. The First Minister and deputy First Minister also agreed to remove one of the final policy proposals. That simply duplicated another policy proposal, which actually still remains in the Bill. The purpose of today's presentation is to provide the Committee with an overview of the Bill's provisions. I would like very briefly to outline each of the policy proposals and to signpost members to the relevant clause in the Bill.

The general purpose of the Bill is to impose a duty on public authorities to consider rural needs, and for connected purposes. The Bill will introduce a statutory duty on all Departments and district councils to consider the needs of people living in rural areas when developing policy and delivering public services. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will have a power to make subordinate legislation that will extend that duty to non-departmental public bodies. Both of those policy proposals are dealt with in provisions included in clause 1. When that clause comes into effect, there will be a statutory duty on all Northern Ireland Departments and district councils, when developing policy and delivering public services, to consider the social and economic needs of people in rural areas.

Clause 1 also provides for DARD to specify, by order, other public authorities to which that duty will apply. Such an order would be subject to the draft affirmative resolution procedure. There are a number of reasons why DARD is seeking to take that power rather than specifying other public authorities in the Bill, one of which is to allow the new arrangement to embed effectively in central and local government before rolling it out further to other public authorities. Secondly, it is so that we can consult further on the specific public bodies to which the provisions of the legislation could and should extend. In due course, the Committee will be provided with a delegated powers memorandum, which will explain those reasons in more detail.

The Bill also includes a power for DARD to support rural proofing. That is provided for in clause 2. DARD will be empowered to provide guidance, advice and information about issues connected with rural needs and ways of meeting those needs, and also to undertake, commission or support research into matters concerning rural needs.

Clause 3 makes provision for the proposed monitoring and reporting arrangements. Departments, district councils and any other public authorities that may be specified in the future will be required to compile information on how they have met their statutory duty to consider rural needs. They will also be required to submit that information to DARD, which will have a duty to prepare an annual report to be laid before the Assembly. The report will include the information provided by duty holders, as well as information on DARD's exercise of its additional functions under the Bill. That will provide the Assembly with the opportunity to scrutinise the information and assess how those bodies have met their statutory duty.

The Bill will make provision for arrangements for securing cooperation and collaboration between Departments and district councils. Clause 4 places a duty on DARD to make those arrangements. That provision will enable DARD, other Departments, district councils and any other specified public authorities to cooperate with each other and share information, which will help to ensure a more consistent and cohesive approach to addressing rural needs.

I mentioned earlier that it was agreed to remove one of the final policy proposals, which simply duplicated another policy proposal that still remains in the Bill. The proposal removed was that DARD should have a statutory role to promote and encourage Departments and district councils to consider the needs of people living in rural areas. During the drafting of the Bill, the conclusion was reached that that particular policy proposal was unnecessary because there will be a statutory duty on public authorities to consider rural needs. Including provision in the Bill for DARD to encourage and promote the consideration of rural needs would, therefore, simply have duplicated that duty.

I should also point out that clause 5 provides for DARD to determine when the Bill's provisions will come into effect. The reason for seeking that power will be explained in greater detail in the delegated powers memorandum that I referred to earlier. Primarily, it is because it will be important to ensure that the necessary supporting framework for duty holders is in place and the statutory monitoring and reporting arrangements are developed prior to the new duties coming into force.

Before I conclude, I will briefly mention the timetable for the Bill. The Minister intends to introduce the Bill to the Assembly on 9 November, with Second Stage proposed for 17 November. Following Second Stage, the Bill will stand referred to the Committee for its Committee Stage, which we hope to have concluded before the end of January. I have highlighted the key role that the ARD Committee will play in scrutinising the Bill in previous briefings to you. We recognise — I acknowledge, Chair, that this was mentioned in your meeting with the Minister earlier today — that there is a very challenging timescale in progressing the Bill through its Assembly stages before the end of the current mandate.

We appreciate the clear challenge facing the Committee in taking that forward. We reaffirm the commitment of our team to work with the Committee at all stages as you find appropriate so that we can support you and seek to secure the passage of the Bill in the time that remains.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): Thank you very much, Louise. In policy terms, what difference do you feel that this Bill will actually make to the rural community and farmers?

Ms Warde Hunter: The clear aim and intended outcome is to place the needs of rural dwellers much more clearly and consistently at the heart of policymaking. The rural proofing obligation is already there; the Executive signed up to that. Respondents to our consultation said that their perception was that this was, on occasion, undertaken in an uneven way; in other words, it was patchy. Placing the obligation on a statutory footing will ensure consistency and transparency because the requirement will be on Departments and district councils to provide evidence. It will not be sufficient simply to say that they are looking out for the needs of rural people when developing policies and services. They will be required to give demonstrable evidence of that. The proof will be in the pudding because they will then be required to offer their information to the Department, whose requirement is to compile that in an annual report to be laid before the Assembly.

I speak, obviously, as a civil servant, reporting to a Minister. In developing policy, the requirement placed on Departments will ensure that policy shapers take account of rural dwellers' needs and very clearly provide that information in shaping policies. The ultimate in good information and evidence gathering to inform a policy is to support the Minister of that Department to make the best-informed decision that they can. Assessing the needs of rural dwellers will create an opportunity for reflection and the potential amendment of the shaping of policy. That will also contribute to enhancing the outcomes for those who live in rural areas.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): The explanatory and financial memorandum is meant to provide an explanation of the Bill and information on its financial aspects. The draft memorandum has only one short paragraph on finance at paragraph 16. There is no real detail on the financial effects of the Bill. Can you give me some further detail in pounds and pence on what is meant by:

"The requirement across government to report on their functions under this Bill will require some additional administrative resource."?

Ms Warde Hunter: Primarily, Chair, what we were anticipating in that is that we acknowledge that rural proofing is already an Executive commitment, therefore Departments should be undertaking it. The Bill, though, is going to be putting in new monitoring and reporting arrangements. There is a duty on Departments to offer their information to us and, indeed, for district councils to do the same. However, the duty will be on DARD, and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in future, to draw that information together and produce it in a suitable report for the Assembly. Clearly, some additional resource will be needed for DARD to be able to undertake that role. It is not a role that we are undertaking in quite the same way currently. We would anticipate that being at modest cost. Overall, though, it is challenging to quantify precisely what the resource would be. Our commitment is to work with other Departments and district councils to ensure that the administrative burden is kept to a minimum. Quite clearly, we would wish to engage with councils on how they can use existing mechanisms that they might wish to draw on, in community planning for example, to avoid duplication.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): You said that there will be a statutory duty on public authorities to implement the Bill. How do you ensure that they do that; the statutory bit? Do you understand what I mean? It may be a statutory duty but it is difficult to ensure that they deliver, is it not?

Ms Warde Hunter: Councils will be required to cooperate with us in order to furnish us with information as to how they are taking the duty forward. Part of our engagement with them will be about offering support and guidance, and that will come forth in further guidance. There is already guidance on rural proofing. As the Bill progresses through the Assembly and through the legislative process, we will also begin to turn our minds to how the guidelines, the supporting mechanisms and the framework would be put in place to ensure that it is done correctly and consistently. That will mean reviewing existing guidance on rural proofing. I do not know whether one of my colleagues would like to add more detail.

Mrs Colette McMaster (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development): I think that, as it beds in, it will become a normal and routine part of making policy. It already is in some places. As Louise explained, that can make for better informed policy, which is certainly the intention.

Mr McMullan: Thanks for your presentation. The wording that I think you said was in the Bill is to "consider rural needs". The word "consider" strikes me as referring to something that is not mandatory. If it is left like that, it will be left to councils and statutory bodies to implement this in the way that they see fit. They could argue that they did implement it and they did their statutory duty. I think there would have to be something stronger than just asking them to "consider".

The first thing that you would ask for is an equality impact assessment. If that is requested, you can see how that will form a backlog. For example, if a council were considering implementing something, how would it look at striking the rate base if it had not done an equality impact assessment on rural dwellers around transport or fuel poverty etc? That needs to be looked at in each council area. It costs more to live in a rural area than in an urban area, because services such as hospitals are mostly in urban areas. Those are some of the things that I worry about when the word "consider" is being used. If we are going to rural proof, the duty on the Departments and the councils needs to be mandatory in some way, without taking the stick out.

Planning is another issue that is not mentioned and that will play a big part in this. Community planning has been mentioned. Councils will have powers over planning but that is not going to happen for three or four years. We need some method to ensure that that falls into what we are going to do. I welcome rural proofing; I am quite excited about the whole thing because it is time that it was done, but we need to make sure that the likes of that will be pulled into it.

Community plans — work has started on those already — would have to include some way of getting all of this gelled together. That is not an easy job. I do not think that there is a quick fix out of the whole lot, because there is a lot out there to deal with. On disability, for example, there is nowhere in the rural areas where people with special needs or a disability can access services in their own community. They are practically all bussed out. That is where we need to see, for example, the health trusts possibly using satellite services, with the help of councils. Those are the kinds of things that need to be fed in now. I could go on all day.

Ms Warde Hunter: You are OK. I appreciate all the points that you make. At the heart of it, I hear from you some anxiety or reservations about whether the Bill will be robust enough and whether the meaning of "to consider" will be robust enough to deliver what we want it to do. There is other terminology, and I want to give you a sense of what else we considered and why we plumped for a term of that nature.

Obviously, it is about introducing the mandatory requirement. There is no getting away from that. It is a statutory and mandatory requirement on government and certain district councils to consider rural needs in policy development and service delivery. I know that we understand that. In developing the thinking around it, we carefully took on board the views of not just all the consultees but the Departmental Solicitor's Office and the Office of the Legislative Counsel. They are the people who can guide you through the precision of the language and the definitions.

We considered whether the duty could be framed by stating that there must be "due regard" to, rather than consideration of, rural needs. However, we were conscious at that point, from working on advice from the legal advisers, that "due regard" provides for a higher level of duty and could have resulted — this was the balancing act — in an increased administrative burden. That was highlighted by a number of correspondents and respondents to the consultation.

One of the other things that came up — again, this is pertinent to the issue of language — was whether the Bill should include a duty "to mitigate" any adverse impact of policies on rural dwellers, but there would have been a number of issues with that as well. I am happy to go into that in more detail with you, if you would find that helpful. The point is that we tried to look at the impacts of a policy or the delivery of a particular service, how that is shaped and what it is going to mean for people in rural areas. If we had taken forward imposing a duty on mitigating measures, that would have gone beyond what we were looking to do. I think that it would have potentially risked placing on the statute book something that required public bodies, government and district councils to behave in a certain way. Therefore, there was an issue around what impact that might have had, particularly given the financial challenges and other challenges, including, I have to say, issues around whether there might have been other legal obligations that the legislation could have come into conflict with. Therefore, starting from the point of looking at what the statutory footing is, I have outlined what we believe the Bill, with the wording and definitions that it contains, could achieve.

Your second issue was about making sure that the wide sweep of issues facing rural communities can be included. Clearly, that is the bit about working closely with councils. Community planning will be a critical aspect of that.

I remind members that we also have the rural White Paper and the attendant action plan. There is a complementary bit in that. In a way, we see those as two complementary initiatives. The action plan, which will be refreshed in due course, should set out what Departments see as their discrete priorities in serving the needs of rural dwellers.

Mr McMullan: I do not think that the present rural White Paper has been adhered to. There does not seem to be the enthusiasm to adhere to it, even though the Departments here have all signed up to work to it. There does not seem to be great evidence of that happening. If we are to do this, which I welcome, we need to get it out there to the public that we have this rural proofing Bill and that here are its benefits. Do not forget that a lot of this stuff will be voted on when it goes back to councils. Votes are sometimes taken on a parochial basis or in some other way, so councils need to be reminded that this is a statutory obligation so there cannot be any mucking about with it.

Ms Warde Hunter: The point about wider public dissemination is well made, and we will take it on board.

Mrs McMaster: We have had engagement with councils already, and that is set to continue. Although the Bill is still the draft Rural Needs Bill, the advice that we have had on rural proofing has been accepted as part of the statutory guidance that is going to councils for the community planning process. We are set to continue that engagement with them. In fact, Astrid recently met the local government community planning officials' network, as councils are starting, across the piece, to work on community planning. Therefore, they are aware of this from the outset. We are going to continue that engagement.

Mr McMullan: It needs to come out at the start that this is mandatory rural proofing, as does what rural proofing is, so that the public know as well as those who will be administering it.

Ms Warde Hunter: I will make a tiny point, Chair. I believe that putting it on a statutory footing will make more robust and strongly complement the concept of an action plan, because you have to make it evident and transparent that you are building information. I am thinking about Ministers. If you are doing all that, on that basis, it stands to reason that our Ministers will be better informed when they come to put in actions for their own Department, because it will be based on much stronger and consistent evidence.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): How will "rural" and "needs" be defined?

Ms Warde Hunter: OK. I invite colleagues to help me on that one by chipping in. We are defining "rural needs" as the:

"social and economic needs of persons in rural areas."

Of course, "rural" is defined by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). The definition is not in the draft Bill, because it could be subject to change, and that would not make for good primary legislation. However, "rural" is defined as being a settlement of under 5,000 people.

Sorry, Chair, was there a second question?

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): How is "needs" defined?

Ms Warde Hunter: I will pass over to Astrid to explore whether we have subdivided that under "social and economic".

Ms Astrid Stuart (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development): As Louise said, in clause 6, we have defined "rural needs" as the:

"social and economic needs of persons in rural areas."

The general principle with legislation is that, where a term is not defined, it is attributed its normal meaning in ordinary speech. Most terms in the Bill are generally well understood and fairly straightforward. Therefore, other than the one that I have outlined, it was considered that no specific definitions were required. There is legislative precedent for some of the terms that we use in the Bill, such as "rural needs" and "persons in rural areas". Previous legislation uses similar terms.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): Does it apply to those living in rural areas only? What about those who live in urban areas and work in rural areas?

Ms Stuart: We have used the phrase "persons in rural areas" really to cover a multitude of scenarios. I do not think that we would want to limit it to just those living in rural areas. They could be persons living, working or spending time in rural areas. We wanted to encapsulate all those factors.

Ms Warde Hunter: Again, there is a precedent for that in legislation across the water.

Mr Anderson: Louise, I am rural dweller. Over the years, rural dwellers have lost many services and facilities. The Bill can talk about the statutory duty on Departments, but, if we get community planning or whatever through the district councils and groups are coming forward and talking about post offices, schools, banks, ATMs or any other much-needed service in rural areas — those are things that we hear about all the time — how do you see it being enforced? How do you see the Bill helping district councils bring forward community planning?

Ms Warde Hunter: I know that, when we engaged earlier in the year, that was a subject clearly dear to Committee members' hearts. On the issue of government's ability to influence, and a law to influence, in this specific case what the private sector — for example, banks or a key retailer, the equivalent of the corner shop — might do, it is quite clearly beyond the ambit of this particular legislation. I believe, though, that the added import of the statutory footing that would be placed on government and district councils elevates the legislation. It raises its profile in a different way. I think that that will be the power of it in local communities.

You specifically referenced district councils. I recognise that elected members on councils are not only influencers of people who work in government and in statutory and public services but advocates, in the context of shaping their own plan with those who make money in the private and commercial sectors in the area. Although we recognise the limits of the legislation, it will, in practice, give it a greater significance. To go back to what Mr McMullan said about whether this will be publicised and how we need to reach out, I believe that that is a very important dimension to it. Certainly with community planning, it will then be for local councillors to look at what they are obliged to do in taking forward their district council's community plan. We are not saying exactly how they should engage with all the other public, private, community and voluntary players to achieve their plan, but, quite clearly, taking account of rural need and the needs of rural dwellers will have to be in there. If that then requires them to engage effectively with the voluntary sector, the community sector and the private sector to benefit people in those areas and meet their needs, one imagines imagine that that is something that our councillors will be very active in taking forward.

Mr Anderson: Rural schools has been another issue over the years. We saw the demise of many rural schools that were at the heart of their community. Can you see the Bill effectively enhancing those schools by putting the case for keeping them?

Ms Warde Hunter: Again, I think that the legislation gives the issue an increased profile. I happened to be in the Department of Education at the time of the Bain review, when the numbers — minimum numbers of entrants, of course — were set for primary schools in rural and urban areas. I know that those numbers caused challenges at the time, but that has now been accepted. The difference was to reflect the fact that you would not always have the numbers for seven classes for P1 through to P7 already there. I think that it was reflected there that rural communities did need something different. I appreciate that that did not stop some of our very smallest schools ending up being closed or merged, but, from the Minister of Education and his Department's point of view, the primary concern is always the quality of the education that the child or young person will receive, and that became pre-eminent in that particular case. It is a balancing act. I remember it all so very well. However, that could be reconciled. The fact that there is a difference in the minimum class size is consistent and reflects that there was nuancing done there to take account of the needs of rural dwellers and rural communities.

Mr Anderson: It has to be accepted that rural dwellers need extra help because of the spread of where we all live. I know that it will be difficult to provide schools and facilities, but more could be done to ensure that we arrest the demise of those facilities that have disappeared over the years. Will the Bill give us that profile? You may not be able to do anything on a statutory footing, but you can say, "This is something that we should aim for", and district councils should be encouraged to do that when they fill out their community plans and such things.

Ms Warde Hunter: If you look at the geography of Northern Ireland, you will see that we are a very rich rural hinterland. It would be a mistake to think that our rural citizens do not count in the same way as our urban citizens. The aspirations for the Bill are to make sure that the appropriate consideration is given. We recognise that there will not be a school in every village, and we recognise that there will not be a hospital or a clinic in every hamlet. I think that Committee members recognised that even when we came before you the previous time. There is a finite pot of money for what our Ministers, the Executive and Members are trying to achieve for citizens all across Northern Ireland. The issue is about seeking to meet the needs in an equitable way that reflects truly what our rural communities need.

Mr McMullan: Very quickly, what about devolved matters when it comes to striking the right rates? When the Government set their rate and the councils set their rates, will there be any conflict?

Ms Warde Hunter: I am not sure that that is something that I have looked at from a conflict point of view. Unless my colleagues have a view, I am happy to take the question away, give it a bit of consideration and come back to you.

Mr McMullan: If you are looking at social and economic needs, one of the first things that somebody will look at is the rate base in rural areas as opposed to that in urban areas. Rates for houses in rural areas are based on valuations, which is a bit unfair. If there is a clamour to live in the countryside from the urban dweller, he or she will put up rates on houses because the area will be sought after and prices will go up. There needs to be some way of looking at that. If not, we will go down the line to where rural proofing kicks in.

Ms Warde Hunter: I take your point. I also recognise that that would ultimately affect the pots of resource in the relevant community. The supporting Department and the individual councils that strike the rate would have to take account of that, which could take it back up to a much wider —

Mr McMullan: We do not want the public saying, "What is this all about? What can we get here? We are still no better off, urban and rural". There will be some things that you will protect, but if we are going down the line of social and economic needs, we need to be careful that there is a balance struck there. There are other devolved matters that you could have a look at.

Ms Warde Hunter: Thank you very much. Those are very helpful comments. We will take those away.

Mr Anderson: Thank you very much.

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