Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 11 September 2000


Appointment of Ministers

Assembly: Committee of the Centre (Chairmanship)

Royal Irish Regiment: Sierra Leone Hostages

Legislation Programme

Assembly: Ad Hoc Committee on Flags Order 2000

Water Supply: Cryptosporidium

Education: North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting

The Environment: North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting

Food Safety and Health: North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting

Enterprise, Trade And Investment: North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting

Weights and Measures Bill: Committee Stage

Assembly: Statutory Committees

Assembly: Business Committee

Assembly Commission

Assembly: Committee on Standards and Privileges

Royal Assent

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Appointment of Ministers

Mr Speaker:

I wish to inform the House that Mr Gregory Campbell has been appointed Minister for Regional Development on the resignation of Mr Peter Robinson MP, and that Mr Maurice Morrow has been appointed Minister for Social Development on the resignation of Mr Nigel Dodds. These appointments were made under the provisions of section 18 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and became effective on 27 July 2000.

Committee of the Centre (Chairmanship)


Mr Speaker:

I further inform the House that Mr Edwin Poots has been appointed Chairman of the Committee of the Centre.

Royal Irish Regiment: Sierra Leone Hostages


Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

As the House is aware, the headquarters of the Royal Irish Regiment is in the North Antrim constituency. I am sure that the residents not only there but in the whole of Northern Ireland will want to express their gratitude to Almighty God for an answer to their prayers and the deliverance of those who were held captive as hostages.

We also wish to pay tribute to the member of the British Army who lost his life while helping to save the lives of these young men. To their families and friends we wish to express our great relief that they are now free. Getting the hostages out without further bloodshed is something of which the British Army can be proud.

Legislation Programme


The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

With permission, Mr Speaker, the Deputy First Minister and I will make a statement about the legislative priorities of the Executive Committee for the Assembly session from September 2000 until July 2001. In making this statement we will have to be sketchy about the content of some of the measures, but we feel that it is desirable to give Members as much notice as possible about the subjects that are likely to come forward over the course of this session.

I should like to begin by updating the legislative proposals announced in the Assembly on 31 January. At that time we set out a programme of some 12 Bills to be introduced in the initial session, with a further six being brought forward later. Of the initial 12 items of primary legislation announced, three have been made. These Equality (Disability etc.) Order and an Appropriation Order, both of which were made by Order in Council at Westminster during the suspension of the Assembly, having been initiated here. The third was an Appropriation Bill which, as Members will know, was made by Assembly Bill before the summer recess and received Royal Assent on 25 July. A further four Bills were introduced to the Assembly in June, namely the Ground Rents Bill, a Weights and Measures Bill, a Dogs (Amendment) Bill and a Fisheries Bill. These are now at various stages of the Assembly process, and approval was given by the Assembly on 3 July to carry them forward into the new session.

Of the five remaining Bills announced in the initial programme, two represent parity measures, and their timing was dependent on the progress of corresponding Bills before Parliament at Westminster. These are a Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill and a Health and Personal Social Services Bill. The Great Britain legislation was completed on 28 July, after the Assembly recess, and both Northern Ireland Bills are now being finalised for introduction at the end of this month. A further two Bills — the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Bill and the Street Trading Bill — are at an advanced stage of drafting for introduction by October. The final Bill in this group — a Trustees Bill — was deferred pending further legislation at Westminster. It is now hoped that this will be introduced before Christmas.

I shall now move on to the Executive Committee’s further legislative proposals for the current session.

In addition to the Bills I have already mentioned, the Executive has identified a further 21 proposals for legislation at this time.

I shall start with Appropriation Bills. Depending on the position with autumn supplementary requirements, an Appropriation Bill may be required in late October. Thereafter, two Appropriation Bills will be needed, one to deal with the spring Supplementary Estimates in February, while the second, setting the Main Estimates, will be introduced in May.

In addition, it is intended to bring forward four other Bills relating to Finance and Personnel matters in this session.

The first is a Resource Accounting and Budgeting Bill to implement resource accounting and budgeting in Northern Ireland from the new financial year.

The second is a Defective Premises (Landlords) Bill. This would implement reforms recommended by the Law Reform Advisory Committee in relation to a landlord’s liability to repair defective premises that he owns. Under the current law, landlords have certain immunities from this liability.

The third Bill is a Family Law Bill, which would facilitate the acquisition of parental responsibility for unmarried fathers and modernise the law on scientific tests to determine parentage.

Finally, the Audit (Transfer of Staff) Bill is to enable the transfer of staff from the Health Service and local government audit to the employment of the Northern Ireland Audit Office. The purpose of this would be to enhance the independence of the audit function.

On agriculture matters a Foyle Fisheries Act 1952 (Amendment) Bill will be brought forward. The main purpose of this Bill will be to amend the Foyle Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1952 to enhance the functions of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission in line with the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) Order (Northern Ireland) 1999. These new functions would relate to the promotion and development of Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough, and the development and licensing of aquaculture in the loughs. The Bill must proceed in parallel with corresponding legislation in the South. It was originally intended as a composite measure along with that dealing with the regulation of shellfish. However, owing to time constraints, it was decided to separate the two elements and take the latter forward in the Bill currently before the Assembly.

The Deputy First Minister will deal with the other Bills.

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):

A number of Bills are proposed in relation to Department of the Environment matters.

A Local Government (Best Values) Bill will remove existing statutory provision for the compulsory competitive tendering of specified council services and replace it with a new duty on councils to achieve best value in the delivery of all of their services.

A Local Government (Finance) Bill will introduce a new methodology for the distribution of the resources element of General Exchequer grant to district councils. The new methodology will address the complex nature of the current formula and also provide for regular payments to facilitate good financial planning by district councils. It will also incorporate factors into the calculation that will take account of relative socio-economic disadvantage between districts in accordance with New TSN principles.

A Game (Amendment) Bill will be brought forward to amend the partridge-shooting season. There will also be a Dangerous Wild Animals Bill to regulate dangerous wild animals kept in private collections in Northern Ireland to ensure the safety of the public through a licensing scheme and the facilitating of processes of appraisal, appeal, inspection and seizure.

There is a need for planning legislation, which will include proposals to clarify and strengthen development control and enforcement powers; give primacy to development plans in the determination of planning applications; and amend the working practices of the Planning Appeals Commission.

A number of Bills are also planned to do with Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety matters.

First, a Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Bill will place the current Pre-Employment Consultancy Service (PECS) on a statutory basis and widen its remit to include vulnerable adults in certain settings. Placing the existing scheme on a statutory basis will allow it to become part of a UK-wide scheme to provide safeguards for children and ensure that details of those deemed unsuitable to work with children can be exchanged between jurisdictions.

A Carers and Disabled Children Bill will provide legislation to facilitate trusts in the provision of carer assessments, including extending to the carer choice in the sourcing of care provision following assessment.

A Children Leaving Care Bill will help to improve the life chances of young people aged 16 and over who have been looked after by health and social services trusts as they move from care to independent living. It will change the financial regime for supporting these young people and involve changes to the social security benefits system.

Also, a further Health and Personal Social Services Bill is planned to put in place a framework for the setting of explicit standards and guidelines for health and personal social services.

From the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister an Electronic Communications Bill will be brought forward to enable Northern Ireland Departments to amend legislation to facilitate the use of electronic signatures and electronic data as described in the UK-wide Electronic Communications Act 2000.

The Minister for Social Development has plans to bring forward a Housing Bill, which will include new arrangements for housing regulation.

The Minister for Regional Development is considering three pieces of legislation dealing with transport matters, including possible travel concessions, the development of public/private partnership to improve bus and rail services, road user charging, workplace car park levies and a new legislative framework to support modern and safe rail travel.

Before any legislation is brought to the Assembly, Executive Committee approval of the policy and draft Bill is required. The policy issues associated with the legislative proposals from the Ministers for Regional and Social Development will have to be carefully considered by the Executive Committee. Unfortunately, if those Ministers continue to absent themselves from the Executive Committee meetings, the full exploration of the policy issues becomes more difficult.

Our priority, however, is to provide good government for all people in Northern Ireland, and these Bills will be incorporated into the legislative programme if the Executive Committee is content with the detail of what is proposed.

Finally, this programme represents the legislative needs identified by the Executive Committee at this stage; it is not an exhaustive list. During the year, Ministers may, and probably will, wish to bring forward other policy initiatives, particularly those associated with the Programme for Government that require legislative authority. In the coming months, consultation documents will be issued and views taken on a number of further initiatives. The legislative programme, as set out, constitutes the current priorities, but it is possible that one or more pieces of legislation may not come forward. It is also possible that additional legislative proposals could be brought forward to the Assembly in the current session. For example, in this latter category the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has reported the possible need for legislation arising from the current review of industrial development agencies.

10.45 am

Mr Leslie:

I welcome the statement from the First and Deputy First Ministers on their legislative programme, which contains a number of measures that I think will be of benefit. However, I am concerned that the Game (Amendment) Bill will be brought forward to amend the partridge-shooting season. This matter was brought to the attention of the Environment Committee in July. A consultation paper has been issued, and I believe that responses are due by 20 September. I have responded to the consultation paper to the effect that I am not persuaded of the need for this change. Therefore I am very concerned, as the consulation period has not yet ended, that this statement says that a Bill will be brought forward. I trust that whether a Bill is brought forward, and what it might contain, will be decided upon in the light of the outcome of the consultation process.

On transport matters, I welcome the idea that a Bill may be brought forward to develop public and private partnerships to improve bus and rail services. Can the First and Deputy First Ministers reassure the House that no decisions will be made on the closure of railway lines until every avenue has been explored for financing and improving the services? It is essential that the opportunity to mobilise private finance be made available before any such decision is taken.

Mr Speaker:

Members have returned from the recess, and I urge them to return to the good habit of ensuring that questions are actually questions rather than statements — although, inevitably, some expressions of view will form part of them.

The First Minister:

Mr Speaker, you have referred to the ingenuity of the hon Member in drawing attention to the possibility of financing railways through public private partnerships, and no doubt that will be considered. I am not in a position to comment on the Member’s question with regard to a Railways Bill. All we are saying at this stage is that we have received a request from the appropriate Department to include provision for legislation on those transport matters. We are not in a position to comment on what policy matters might be contained within that or the particular policy choices to which the Member refers. Obviously, these will have to be discussed, and my Colleague the Deputy First Minister has drawn attention to the difficulties we have in discussing them given the non-participation of the relevant Minister.

With regard to the Game (Amendment) Bill, I would like to reassure the Member about the language that was used. From a timetable point of view —and it is necessary to attempt some timetabling of the legislation — we have looked at where legislation on game matters might come in.

Where it might come in terms of timetable is not intended in any way to preclude the consideration that will occur in Committee. It is perfectly open for the Committee, and the Department in consultation with the Committee, to look at the proposals and to change them or, indeed, to decide to withdraw the legislation. We did give a general warning at the end of the statement that this timetable was not set in stone, and the particular matters to which the hon Member has referred are part of the reason for that.

Ms Lewsley:

I welcome the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Bill. I do not have to remind the Assembly of the unfortunate history we have in Northern Ireland of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults. Will the Deputy First Minister explain some of the steps in this Bill, and will he also give some consideration to the scheme so that we can work with the Republic of Ireland to ensure that abuse of children and vulnerable adults does not happen there?

The Deputy First Minister:

The aim of the Bill, in broad terms, is to provide safeguards for children and vulnerable adults by putting systems in place for checking the suitability of persons seeking to work with them. They will be operated by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on the basis of the information provided by those seeking to work with children and adults with a learning disability.

Checks will be carried out, including checks against criminal records, records held on those banned from working in schools and the PECS register. The register is compiled from information provided by statutory and voluntary organisations in relation to workers who have been dismissed or transferred in circumstances in which it is considered that they do pose a threat to children or vulnerable adults with a learning disability. The decision to place the name on the register is made by the Department in consultation with the Social Services Inspectorate.

The system is in advance of that in any other part of the United Kingdom but has no statutory basis. Placing the existing system on a statutory basis would allow it to become part of a wide scheme to improve safeguards for children and ensure that details of those deemed unsuitable to work with children could be exchanged between jurisdictions. That would apply also to the Republic of Ireland. On an island such as this it is absolutely essential that that information be available to both Governments.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

In a previous statement the First and Deputy First Ministers told us that the Executive agree that we need to do more for the long-suffering agriculture industry. What is in this programme to benefit agriculture? We have one Bill that is tied in with the South of Ireland. Do the Ministers realise the perilous state of the agriculture industry at the present time? I call their attention to an extract from the statement. It says

"There is need for planning legislation which would include proposals to clarify and strengthen development control and enforcement powers".

Are they going to take a realistic view and relax planning control on farm land so that farmers can gain something from their property? I draw their attention to the Agriculture Committee’s recommendation. Is the Department of the Environment going to take steps to do something with regard to that?

With regard to Ministers not attending the Executive, the Ministers of the DUP are doing exactly what the First Minister said he would do. He said that if there was no decommissioning he would not be sitting down with IRA/Sinn Féin. They are keeping their word to the electorate, and in a few days’ time the electorate of South Antrim will have an opportunity to decide on this issue.

The First Minister:

The first two points made by the Member related to agricultural matters, although one was disguised — it is a planning matter. The Member is aware that the bulk of policy and other matters relating to agriculture are determined by Europe. This is a European matter. The scope for local initiatives is limited. Nonetheless, as the Member knows, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is engaged in developing a vision for the future of agriculture in Northern Ireland. It is aware of the challenges and is trying, within the limited scope there is for local discretion, to develop a view for the future of agriculture. We are aware of the extent of the crisis facing agriculture at the moment, and need to work out a clear future for it — something which goes beyond a "quick fix" or simply injects a little bit money on a one-off basis into some farms, but not into others. We need to establish a vision for the future.

All the changes that are taking place, both inside and outside the European Community, affect this industry. The planning matters referred to are obviously important in themselves. The Member will agree that there is a clear need to review the planning service so that it becomes more effective and takes decisions more speedily. These measures may achieve that aim. The relevant Minister will go into greater detail on this.

Finally, I noticed that the hon Member said that his party was sticking to its pledges by refusing to sit down with Sinn Féin. I also noticed comments in the media today about publicity in Committees. I hope that it will be possible, through the greater publicity that is to be given to Committee meetings, for the people of Northern Ireland to see that the Member in question is sitting down with Sinn Féin each day but coming to this Chamber and pretending otherwise.

Mr Speaker:

Order. We need to proceed with questions on the statement.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order. Is it right for the fudged First Minister to mislead this House deliberately? [Interruption]

Mr Speaker:


Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I said that we were not sitting on the Executive. He can take that grin off his face because he knows that he is going to get his come-uppances very shortly.

Mr Speaker:

I must ask the Member to resume his seat. It has become practice to ask if it is in order for others to mislead the House, and that is rarely a point of order.

Mr McLaughlin:

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. When working with our DUP colleagues on the Standing Orders and the Statutory Committees, we find that they do not behave in this way. Normally it is fairly businesslike.

I thank the First and the Deputy First Ministers for their statement. I am drawn to the section which deals with the semi-detached Ministers for Regional and Social Development. I hope that in their consideration of how this affects the legislative process there will be an examination of how they fulfil the Pledge of Office. Even in the context of the current crisis in the Department for Regional Development, the Minister concerned is not prepared to meet with members of my party.

Mr Speaker:

Order. I have been reasonably generous in trying to identify at which point a Member’s oration relates to the statement by the First and the Deputy First Ministers. As yet I have not quite identified that point in this oration. I ask the Member to address himself to that.

Mr McLaughlin:

I am dealing with the final page of the statement, which refers to those Ministers who continue to absent themselves. I hope that we will get specific proposals from the First and the Deputy First Ministers about how this will be dealt with.

My primary point — and I would like an answer to this from the First Minister — is that the statement continually refers to the parallel legislation being developed at Westminster which has consequences here.

11.00 am

In the final section of his statement the First Minister indicated that this is not an exhaustive list and that Ministers may wish to bring forward other policy initiatives. Can he provide an assurance at this stage that the local government elections, which are scheduled for May of next year, will proceed at that time, and that we will not have a late ministerial initiative on that issue.

The Deputy First Minister:

I thank the hon Member for a question which is not entirely related to the legislative programme. As I understand it, the hon Member is seeking an opinion on something which does not appear on the legislative programme, and the reason it does not appear on the legislative programme is that it is not within the competency of this Administration to put it there. Although I would love to be in a position to answer the question, I would be foolhardy even to attempt to make a guess at what might be included in any arrangements for a hypothetical case such as this, if it ever ceased to be hypothetical.

In terms of the hon Member’s previous point it is quite true. I make this appeal and put it on record again: having an Administration of our own in Northern Ireland is something worth nurturing. To have it on the basis of a four-part coalition is very difficult indeed. It is made more difficult when we do not have the opportunity to develop the corporate responsibility that we owe to the people of Northern Ireland and that collectivism which will eventually make it a very fine Administration. The sooner we are all in a position to concentrate our efforts in a collective way, the better this Administration will be.

Mr Close:

My first comment is to express a degree of disappointment that the majority of the Bills being brought before us today appear to be rather slavishly following legislation from another place. I hope that we will soon reach the day when our own stamp of individuality can be placed on the legislative programme. The people will cherish the Northern Ireland Assembly when they see that it is doing things to their advantage. That has been lacking so far. I seek an assurance from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, particularly in relation to the Appropriation Bills and the Estimates for the financial cycle, that we will have a proper amount of time and information to enable, for example, the Finance and Personnel Committee to fulfil its scrutiny role. The honeymoon period — if I may put it that way — should be seen to be over.

On the question of local government Bills — and again this mirrors to a degree Mr Mallon’s comments — it strikes me that we are continuing to tinker with local government. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister agree that a more radical overhaul of local government is required. I do not believe that with a Northern Ireland Assembly with legislative powers we can continue to justify 26 local authorities and, in particular, the Local Government Finance Bill, which is looking at the resource element of the General Exchequer grant. Do the First Minister and the Deputy First Ministers agree that this is effectively trying to make councils which are non-viable, viable at the expense of the rates? That is not the proper way to go about it. Do they also agree that the question of the new duty on councils to achieve best value — the move from compulsory competitive tendering to best value — is nothing but another layer of bureaucracy for hard-pressed council officials to cope with? It has been demonstrated clearly over the years that local government does operate efficiently in Northern Ireland. Up until now, the question mark would have to be placed on the Department. One has only to look at the measure of efficiency being demonstrated by the rate of increases in district rates and compare that with the rate of increase in regional rates to see where efficiency and best value are coming from.

I welcome the comments of the First and Deputy First Ministers on that aspect.

To be slightly frivolous, I note that the Game (Amendment) Bill is to extend the shooting season. I find it rather ironic that we are attempting to extend shooting seasons when we are all trying to bring about the completion of decommissioning in order to eliminate any shooting here. Am I not also correct that the grey partridge in Northern Ireland is extinct? Is the extra month of shooting to give the shooters a possibility of finding this poor extinct bird rather than for any other reason, such as an increase in finance?

The proposed amendments in planning —

Mr Speaker:

Order. There is a limit of one hour for questions. We not only have to share power; we also have to share time to ensure that Members get an opportunity to put questions and that Ministers get an opportunity to respond. I call now on the First Minister to respond.

The First Minister:

First, I will deal with the Member’s fifth and sixth questions. He referred to them as "frivolous". I do not agree that trying to persuade people to use firearms only for entirely legal purposes is frivolous. That purpose is a very serious one. One must not confuse the legal use of firearms, as in this context, with the illegal use of firearms that we want to see ended completely.

With regard to the Member’s question about the grey partridge, I have to confess that I have no knowledge of that at all. It is a closed book to me, and I shall refer that to the Minister responsible. I cannot answer the question.

On the first point that the Member made about his being disappointed about the measures that are being brought forward, he himself does appreciate that until we reach the point of evolving a programme for government and the Administration starts to sort out its collective priorities and policies, there will not be any exciting new measures. At first sight these might appear to be mundane matters. Policies cannot really be made independently on a departmental basis. There are many ramifications, and many policies involve a range of Departments. I said that at first sight the business may not look very exciting. However, there are important things here. What we are doing in some of these matters is repairing the neglect that stemmed from direct rule.

To illustrate that neglect, I will take the measure that the Member referred to: the Dangerous Wild Animals Bill. It may not be a huge problem, but it is a serious problem that has been raised in this Chamber before. The legislation coming forward mirrors GB legislation, enacted in 1976. Because of the neglect that we encountered under direct rule, that legislation, which deals with an important matter, does not apply here.

One could have gone exhaustively through the statute book and found scores of matters that have been enacted in England and Wales or for Great Britain generally which have not been paralleled here. As a result of that, our statute book is in a bit of a mess. And much of that is a result of accumulated neglect over quite a time. It is not all due to direct rule, but most of it is. One of the things that devolution enables us to do is start to tackle that problem. It may not be terribly spectacular, but it is important.

I agree in general terms with the comments about appropriation, the Finance and Personnel Committee and procedures. However, they are subject to the unique problems of a particular timetable that has to be met, and we are still running to try to catch up. We have a very tight timetable to meet for the initial stages of the Programme for Government, and that has to tie in with the budgetary exercise, which also has timetables to meet. I know that the honeymoon period cannot run indefinitely, and we do appreciate the tolerance, good sense and co-operation that the Finance and Personnel Committee has shown in dealing with the problems that arise.

The hon Member then referred to local government generally. He raised a number of points about the viability of councils. There are major issues which we hope to tackle, to a certain extent, through a review of public administration. We hope to bring forward some proposals about the structure and range of that review soon. The hon Member’s comments were based on an assumption of what the outcome of that review might be. It is not appropriate for me to follow on from that. He was doubting the viability of some councils and was critical of how we operate. He was also critical of any changes in local government functions. Those are valid points, but not ones that I can address in these circumstances.

In Northern Ireland a consultation exercise on best value was initiated in December 1997. I am told that it revealed cross-council support for the introduction of best value in Northern Ireland. Consequently a decision was taken to implement the new policy on a voluntary basis, working in partnership with district councils in advance of primary legislation. New primary legislation is now needed to make provision for the repeal of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) as further deferral is not a viable option. The measure is intended to help councils, not to add an extra layer of bureaucracy.

Ms Morrice:

We welcome the recognition of the need for amendment to the planning legislation, including proposals to clarify and strengthen development control and enforcement powers. This would give primacy to development plans in the determination of planning applications. I also understand what Dr Paisley said about the need to relax planning controls on farmland. Will this amendment strengthen planning controls in urban areas? I am sure that the First and Deputy First Ministers recognise that there is serious concern in certain areas about unfettered development. Does this planning legislation intend to strengthen control in urban areas and put a stop to unfettered development?

The Deputy First Minister:

I agree with Ms Morrice, but I cannot, by definition, put it in context. I also agree with Dr Paisley’s point on rural planning and how it applies, especially, to the farming community. I agree that planning can be part of the environmental blight in urban areas, just as much as a lack of planning is in other areas. At this stage it is not possible to say exactly what the Bill is going to do and what it is going to deal with.

Two key elements have been touched upon. One is to try to facilitate those who live off the land, to enable them to live on the land. That is very important. As someone who has represented rural areas for a long time, I have seen young people raised on a farm, working on it and then having to move to a Housing Executive house in a town five or 10 miles away. That is not good from a social point of view or from a planning point of view.

With regard to urban planning, spacial deprivation in parts of Belfast, and in almost all the bigger towns in the North of Ireland, must be looked at. That is a matter not just for the planners but also for us, as public representatives, and for other Departments. One can look at the linkage between violence, especially recently, and that type of spacial deprivation and see that certain questions have to be answered.

To refer to a point made by Assemblyman Close, there should be a review of planning in Northern Ireland, and planning priorities should be established. What was good enough for Milton Keynes for 30-odd years is not good enough for a Northern Ireland that has its own Administration, talents, creativity and a unique knowledge of its place and the people who live in it. If we proceeded to bring a new creativity into that, we could produce something that would be recognisable as being more in tune with life of North of Ireland than some of the regulations that we administer.

11.15 am

Mr Beggs:

As the Assembly Member who highlighted the lack of legislation governing dangerous wild animals in Northern Ireland I welcome the Bill to deal with this matter.

Under the paragraph dealing with a Local Government (Finance) Bill the statement mentions New TSN principles. I was dissatisfied with the proposed New TSN criteria governing economic development and higher and further education, training and employment. I am on the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, and the Committee and I made representations on that to the New TSN unit. Can the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister tell us when the new criteria for New TSN will be made public and when the consultation period will be over so that we can be satisfied that our concerns have been addressed?

The First Minister:

There is a reference in the Local Government (Finance) legislation to New TSN. New TSN is called "new" because it is intended to be better than the "old". One of the ways to make it better is to refine the criteria more precisely for identifying the areas concerned and for dealing in the best way with the spatial deprivation that has been mentioned. It is also important to ensure that the criteria are always objective and relevant, and we hope they will be.

These matters relate to the particular responsibilities of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and we intend to proceed with them, in the public arena, as quickly as possible.

Dr Hendron:

I welcome the statement from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I particularly welcome the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Bill. The present legislation is in a mess, and any proposal that may help families to adopt a child whether from Romania or elsewhere is to be welcomed. However, in saying that, I am concerned about child trafficking, and I seek an assurance that the Bill will address that point.

With regard to the Health and Personal Social Services Bill, I would like to see social workers being able to secure qualifications which are necessary for standards.

I welcome the proposed repeal of the law on GP fundholding, but I, like many other people throughout Northern Ireland, am concerned about what will take its place in primary health care. I would like an assurance from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that there will be full and proper consultation on the future of primary care in Northern Ireland — on every aspect of primary care, from mental health, to the elderly, to children’s services.

The Deputy First Minister:

There are three parts to the Assemblyman’s questions. I am aware of the interest that Dr Hendron has in the matter of adoption, and I know how sensitive and difficult an area it is, but I know of nobody who is better equipped to give us information on this matter than he himself.

This Bill will make provision to give effect in Northern Ireland to the Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Intercountry Adoption, concluded at the Hague on 29 May 1993, and make further provision in relation to adoptions with an international element.

It will make it an offence for anyone other than an adoption agency to assess the suitability of prospective adopters of children from overseas. Secondly, it will be an offence to bring a child into Northern Ireland for the purposes of adoption without satisfying certain conditions that will be prescribed in regulations.

This is an opportunity to pay tribute to those people who work in this ultra-sensitive area, and those who have had the courage to adopt — many of them late in life. Many people’s lives in this country and beyond have been changed by their great generosity.

In relation to the point about changes in primary care, and in the Health Service as a whole, reference was made to our lack of legislation that goes to the heart of many of the problems here. That is what we want to rectify in terms of health care. However, it can only be done after a remarkable amount of consultation. That consultation must take place. Much of it is statutory, and will take place with the relevant professionals. Much of it has to be done in the Assembly Committees as well. However, I agree that the sooner the Assembly gets its own substantive primary legislation on the table for health care, education, agriculture and planning, the sooner we will know that we are creating a new way of life for everyone here. That stems from a vibrant political process.

The sooner we get that primary legislation, the better for all of us — the better for the end results and the better for the political process.

Mr Dodds:

I welcome the proposal for the Social Development Department to bring forward a Housing Bill. This will be extremely important for the people of Northern Ireland, and I look forward to that legislation. I note that the First Minister has begun, as he has continued over the summer, by attacking DUP Ministers while praising Sinn Féin/IRA Ministers for their work. Will the First Minister take it from me that the DUP will continue to act in accordance with its electoral mandate and its electoral pledges? We, unlike — I was going to say "the party" — the half a party that he now leads, will not be breaking our election pledges.

He may do that, but does he not realise that his support for a policy of IRA/Sinn Féin’s inclusion in the Government is the primary reason for him now being in a minority position in Unionism — overwhelmingly in this Assembly, as illustrated by the last vote here? I would like to hear his comments on that.

Mr Speaker:

Order. I must encourage Members and Ministers not only to be as concise and relevant as possible but also to stick to questions on the statement itself. There is a danger of its being widened.

Mr Dodds:

I simply commented on the fact that the First Minister had once again attacked DUP Ministers, while continuing to praise the performance of IRA/Sinn Féin Ministers. Does the First Minister accept that the reason he is in a minority is that he continues to break his pledges and that the Unionist people of Northern Ireland do not accept that IRA/Sinn Féin should be in the Government? That is why this statement today —

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member is very aware of what is in the statement and what is not in the statement. Making comments on other matters is not addressing the statement on the legislative programme. The Member may take the view that what he is addressing should be in the statement, but it is not in the statement. If it is not in the statement, it is not a subject for a question.

Mr Dodds:

The First Minister, along with the Deputy First Minister, without whom he does not make any statement or take any action in his capacity as First Minister, has decided to criticise the performance of DUP Ministers. Does he not realise that the reason he is in a minority on the Unionist benches is that he continues to break his pledges on the issue of decommissioning? If he wants to criticise DUP Ministers, as he has done in this statement today, why does he not have the courage to put a motion before the Assembly to vote them out of office? Let him stop huffing and puffing. Let him put up or shut up.

The First Minister:

The Member’s only reference to my statement was a passing one at the outset to the housing proposal that has come forward from the Department for Social Development. As we said in the statement, until the Executive has had the opportunity of familiarising itself with the policy issues, it will be difficult for us to include the proposal in the programme. We had that difficulty because, while the Minister concerned, or the former Minister, is prepared to come along to this Chamber and make a lot of noise, generating a lot more heat than light, he is not prepared to shed any light on his proposals in the Executive, where it counts.

Mr Maskey:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom cupla ceist a chur.

I have two questions to put to the First and Deputy First Ministers. The first one relates to the issue which has just been debated. I find the statement ambiguous with regard to the policies and draft Bills coming from the DUP Ministers. What arrangements, if any, are in place for the scrutiny of such Bills in the Executive before they come before the Assembly?

I would like to put the second question to the First Minister in particular. The Deputy First Minister responded to Mitchel McLaughlin’s point about possible legislation to defer local government elections. I know that that is not within the remit of the Executive, but nevertheless the First Minister touched on the matter. He mentioned the desirability of holding discussions about a review of the administration of the Six Counties. Are such discussions taking place, and, if so, who is involved in them? The suggestion of a review of administration, including local government and whether local government elections now need to be postponed, affects all of us.

The Deputy First Minister:

I thank the Assemblyman for his questions. He made reference to the previous question. I am not sure in which context. I repeat that until we have collectivity within the Executive we shall not be as able as possible to get the cohesion which is needed for major legislation.

Any piece of primary legislation has various stages. It has to be taken through the House and the Committee. It is a fairly arduous task. That point has to be reached, and I want to see this Administration at its strongest when it reaches that point. The policy memorandum that comes to the Executive with any proposed legislation is, by nature, a very short analysis of the policy upon which the legislation will be based. That is required by our regulations. Surely it is much better for a Minister to come to the Executive and say "Here is what my Department wants to do. Here are the objectives." It is that type of approach that surely goes to the heart of it all.

Finally, I will deal with the question, which is legitimate given the airing that it has been given, though I am not sure that it is relevant to the statement about the review of public services, including local government.

11.30 am

That is something that we all agreed prior to the setting up of the Administration. We should all remember the interminable meetings that took place. It was agreed that public services as a whole needed to be reviewed, including local government. It cannot be done quickly or on a scanty basis. There will have to be independent input, there will have to be an enormous range of consultation, and in my view there will have to be a deep consensus for it to work properly.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker:

I will not take the point of order until the Minister has finished speaking. [Interruption]

Order. There were many questions raised and even answers given.

Mr P Robinson:

You ruled them out of order.

Mr Speaker:

I will take the point of order when the Minister has finished.

The Deputy First Minister:

I believe that it will have to be dealt with by the political process in general. There is no quick fix. If it is going to be done, let it be done well.

Mr Speaker:

Now the point of order from Dr Paisley.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I thought that this statement today was about how the Government were going to bring in their legislation. Now the Minister is digressing and going on about something that he thinks should be done and should be done well. Well, he is certainly not doing well today with this

Mr Speaker:

Order. That is an expression of the Member’s views and not a point of order.

Mr Hussey:

I welcome this statement, but I seek clarification on the Foyle Fisheries Act 1952 (Amendment) Bill. The statement refers to the promotion and development of Loughs Foyle and Carlingford and the licensing of aquaculture in the loughs. Does that mean Lough Foyle or the Foyle system?

Mention has been made of a possible relaxation of planning requirements for housing in rural areas. I urge that any such amendments be not at odds with any efforts that are being made to encourage rural diversification. Planning regulations should not hinder such diversification as may be necessary.

On the penultimate page, reference is made to transport and possible travel concessions. Current investigations are tending to look at the contribution that local government could make to this. There needs to be some uniformity. We should have a uniform state of affairs throughout Northern Ireland and not be dependent on how individual local authorities are prepared to support such a system.

Finally, there is talk of a new legislative framework to support modern and safe rail travel. I support that, but I would give it much greater support if it simply referred to modern and safe travel throughout Northern Ireland. It is all very well to introduce legislative frameworks, but if there is insufficient financial backing, it could become a burden on those who have responsibility for delivering particular services. I hope that the legislative framework has financial backup.

The First Minister:

The Member touched on four matters. First, with regard to Foyle fisheries, the existing legislation enacted in 1952 does not refer to Lough Foyle itself. My understanding is that the proposed legislation is intended to enhance the powers and functions of the Commission so that it can cover the Lough as well as the existing drainage base which feeds into the lough. Part of the reason for doing this is to enhance opportunities to develop aquaculture in Lough Foyle, which would be generally welcomed.

On the question of planning the legislation, it is hoped that when the Bill comes forward, it will strengthen the existing enforcement powers and streamline and clarify existing development control powers. That relates to the procedural aspect, rather than, as the Member said, to the policy that is then going to be dealt with. I hope that streamlining and clarifying control powers will also mean speedy decision making, which is clearly needed in this matter.

Reference was also made to a Railway Safety Bill, and a number of pertinent points were made by the Member about travel generally and the financing of it. As I understand it, we have very little information at the moment on the Railway Safety Bill, part of the object of which will be to update legislation which has remained unchanged in Northern Ireland for many decades. In recent decades, quite a bit of new legislation has come forward in Great Britain which has not been replicated here. While we do not yet have much information from the Department on the content of this proposed Bill, we are told that part of the objective is to update legislation and to introduce here measures that were introduced decades ago across the water.

Finally, the Member referred to travel concessions. He made a very pertinent point on the need for uniformity across Northern Ireland in matters of this nature. There is clearly a need for consistency, there is a need for coherence and there are policy issues behind such a proposal which have to be determined. Those policy issues have not yet been addressed, as far as I am aware, in the Executive, in Committee or in this Chamber, so it is not possible at this stage to make any comment about such legislation. The policy issues have not yet been addressed in a coherent and consistent manner as the Member would like.

Mr Byrne:

I welcome the legislative programme. I want to home in on the public transport area and to pick up on the issue of free travel for pensioners. Pensioners want to see action from this Assembly. I know there is confusion about who would pay for this. There has been a pilot scheme involving Castlereagh and Newry councils in recent times. Pensioners want action. I urge the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make sure that there is a bilateral discussion with the Department for Regional Development to bring this about.

The Deputy First Minister:

I thank the Assembly Member for his comments. I can assure him that pensioners have an abiding interest in this matter. It will be a developing interest as it progresses. The purpose of the Bill will be to introduce free public transport schemes for older people - men and women of 65 or over - and to enable district councils to contribute to the cost of these schemes. This is a Bill that I favour personally for many reasons, but mostly because of the rural nature of Ulster. Most people realise that it is a day's work for people in rural areas, especially elderly people, to get to the nearest town because of the absence of the type of transport that there is in other places. It will be all the more welcome if this is developed in a way that allows elderly people to expand their interests and their lives. I understand that the Bill will enable councils to enter into agreements with the Department over contributions from the district rate to enable free travel schemes for older people to be administered. It will also enable district councils to enter into separate arrangements with transport operators to enable travel concessions for older people to be given. I welcome it and I think we all hope it proceeds quickly.

This is the type of good news that always comes out of an Administration at some point. We should value these good news stories because they apply to all of us, the entire political process. What we should not do with them is be even tempted to use them for party political reasons.

Mr S Wilson:

I welcome the inclusion of the Housing Bill in the legislative programme, and especially the fact that it will introduce regulatory functions for housing associations. We have been concerned that housing associations have fallen between two stools, with neither the housing associations branch nor the Housing Executive regulating them. There is some concern about the effectiveness of the services, which have been delivered by some of them in some places. I welcome clarification on the content of the Housing Bill.

I also note the attack that the Deputy First Minister made on the Ministers for Regional Development and Social Development in the penultimate paragraph of his statement. I thank him for his remarks because he has again demonstrated to the Assembly the First Minister's inability to deal with facts. Can he reaffirm that DUP Ministers are not sitting in Government with Sinn Féin, as we pledged in our manifesto? Does he also agree that there are a number of Bills from both DUP Ministers in the legislative programme and that there is very firm evidence that they are doing their jobs in delivering services to people in Northern Ireland? Does he also agree that it is a bit rich that the Deputy First Minister to lecture anyone about abstention, given the record of his party over the last 30 years? It abstained from Stormont, periodically from councils, the Prior Assembly and the Police Authority, and, of course, the Deputy First Minister himself resigned about a year ago in a fit of pique. Is this another example of the hypocrisy of the SDLP, or, during the holidays, has the Deputy First Minister been down the road to Damascus on the question of abstention.

The First Minister:

I welcome the Member's comments about our being in a new beginning that is different from what happened in the past. I hope that he and his party will play a full part in that new beginning, rather than simply replicating past behaviour.

I heard a sedentary comment from a Member about things that happened in the past, which he disapproved of. Clearly, as far as other parties are concerned, those things are not happening now. That underlines the new beginning that we are representing.

On his substantive question, I was very interested in his reference to housing associations. Having been a member of a housing association, I am aware of the tremendous, positive contribution they have made to the provision of social housing and how important they might be in the future. I listened with interest to the Member's indications that there would be measures relating to housing associations in the Bill. I cannot confirm whether that is the case. The limited briefing from the Department says that the Bill will provide, among other things, new arrangements for housing regulation, powers to provide serviced sites for travellers, discretionary grant schemes for private rented renewal and measures to deal with antisocial behaviour. The reference to the provision of new arrangements for housing regulation may well involve some reference to housing associations, but I cannot say if that is the case. The Member will have to pursue the matter elsewhere.

I went into detail on that matter because the claim that DUP Ministers are doing their jobs is slightly undermined by the fact that we are not being fully briefed on the content of this legislation. I am quoting from the material available to me. That is pertinent. I would be delighted to hear more about the legislation and that will happen if DUP Ministers do their jobs. Let us be clear about what is and what is not happening. Although DUP Ministers fail to attend Executive meetings, which are important, they go into their offices, sit behind their desks and are therefore part of the Government. They sit down in the Government with other people who are in the Administration, even if they continue to draw the entirely spurious distinction about who or who is not in the same room.


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