Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 11 September 2000 (continued)
Mr R Hutchinson:
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Loath as I am on this occasion to rise against the Chairman of my Committee, I must draw attention to your reference to the limited time scale for this matter. Many of us wish to ask questions. Can Members be directed to ask questions rather than make statements?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Thank you for that point. Yes, it would be preferable if questions were put to the Minister.
Mr A Maginness:
In relation to the overall problem, can the Minister assure the House that he believes that the Department's officials acted as promptly as they could, given the circumstances of this outbreak?
From reading the press and listening to local reaction, I know that members of the public felt that officials could perhaps have acted earlier. I would like the Minister to reassure the House that they acted as promptly as they could, given all the circumstances.
Can the Minister confirm if the contamination source is human? Is he satisfied that the septic tank referred to in the report is the source of contamination, and the only source of contamination? Is he satisfied that all possible remedial work has been carried out in order to provide a safe water source for the people living in the Lagmore, Poleglass and north Lisburn areas? Finally, as regards funding for the Water Service, what measures, in relation to the Executive, has the Minister taken to rectify this historic underfunding so that the people of Northern Ireland will have an up-to-date water service adequate to meet their needs?
There was a range of questions, and I will endeavor to deal with each of them. Mr Maginness, the Chairman of the Committee for Regional Development, offered his sympathy to the people affected. I have already done that, and I repeat my sympathies to them.
The first question referred to satisfaction with the way officials acted and the speed with which they acted. Given the complex nature of this problem and the length of time it took to establish that there was a possibility that the public water supply was the cause of the problem, my officials acted very speedily. As I said in my statement, it was on 31 August that the outbreak control team directed that a "boiled water" notice should be issued, and within hours of that notice being issued copies were was being hand delivered to 17,500 homes.
The other issue concerns how I and my Department are dealing with funding to ensure that we have a sufficient water supply that can deal with the problems that Northern Ireland is faced with in the twenty-first century. I referred to that towards the conclusion of my statement, and the bids that we have made, and are making, will reflect that. We hope that we can address those problems.
Mr A Maginness:
Has the source of contamination been identified as human or animal?
A possible source has been confirmed as being human. At this stage it is not possible to be absolute, to be positive beyond any doubt, about the only source. However, we have established that there is a human source.
From what we know about the source, a developer, or someone, breached the outer skin of a Victorian pipe carrying this water and removed bricks to provide a better angle for an outflow from a sewerage system. I understand that the pipe is marked with ventilation shafts, so there is a degree of surface visibility.
The question is whether the developer was aware of what he had come across and what he was digging into. Or did he know what he was doing and proceed anyway?
Should there be a better system for marking the pipeline by including some sort of warning notice? Given the likely end cost of this in human terms, in medical terms - and I am talking about the cost of hospital services - and in terms of Water Service costs, can the Minister give any indication of how much this will cost and whether anyone will be held accountable?
Mr McFarland's question is a difficult one, in that there are many legal issues involved, particularly in relation to the developer to whom he referred. The Water Service is anxious that no inference should be drawn as to any individual and that no household or dwelling should be identified as being in some way responsible for the problem. There is no evidence that this was anything other than an accidental ingress.
The hon Member also talked about identifying the route of the conduit. For precisely those reasons - and clearly I will have to go into this in some detail with my officials - I believe that the Water Service would not be of a mind to do that. It could add to the possibility, for example, of some type of terrorist attack or some type of deliberate, malicious or malevolent intent to interfere with the public water supply. While I understand the rationale behind the hon Member's thinking, I hope that he will understand the complex issues surrounding this matter. My officials are looking at ways and means of ensuring that nothing like this ever happens again.
As a public representative for the Lagan Valley and Lisburn Borough Council areas, where most of the contamination occurred, I have had to deal with angry constituents - elderly people as well as those with young children - who have been infected by cryptosporidium. The extent of the community's anger at the fact that their water system could be contaminated in this way should not be underestimated.
The Minister has now given us the relevant facts, and it appears that this problem was imposed on the Water Service in that it was caused by an ingress into its water system by an outside party. What parts have the building control division of Lisburn Borough Council and the Department of the Environment Planning Service played in relation to this problem? Also, is there any connection between this outbreak and the cryptosporidium outbreak in May, which came about as a result of contamination by sheep in the Silent Valley?
I am conscious of the nature of Mr Poots's concern and want to assure him and his constituents that at the conclusion of this major incident my officials, in conjunction with health officials and, where relevant, Department of the Environment officials, will be looking at all aspects of it to see what changes, if any, can be introduced to prevent recurrence.
Let me give some idea of the scale of this problem.
At the time of identifying the Lagmore conduit, my officials initially walked the entire line of the seven-mile conduit, examining the air wells along it and taking bacteriological samples. They identified samples where there was bacteriological contamination and used this information to identify a specific stretch of conduit, which was then examined by closed-circuit television. There followed a series of consequential actions.
At the close of this outbreak, my Department will liaise with every departmental official necessary to try to ensure that this does not recur. If there is a possibility that public health officials at Lisburn Borough Council could be of assistance, they will liaise directly with them.
Go raibh maith agat. Like other Members, I welcome the Minister's statement and the chance to put one or two questions to him. Is it not true that, but for the diligence of a local GP and the actions of the consultant for communicable disease control, the outbreak of cryptosporidium would not have been discovered, given that, as late as 25 August, the Water Service still refused to accept that it was at fault? Can the Minister outline what steps will be taken to ensure the future monitoring of the water supply, since, according to a number of reports he mentioned, Lagmore was at lower risk than Silent Valley, in spite of the fact that there were outbreaks in both? The Minister assures Members of the seriousness with which he takes this issue. However, comments in the weekend press belie this. I ask the Minister to reassure my constituents, as he did those of Mr Poots, by confirming that he will meet with Sinn Féin representatives from that area to discuss this issue.
I should like to outline once more the response in the specific time period referred to. In the week beginning 21 August the Eastern Health and Social Services Board became aware of a number of cases of cryptosporidiosis in the Poleglass area. On 25 August there were more than 20 confirmed cases, and at that stage an outbreak control team had been established. That control team is chaired by the consultant for communicable disease control, which is not the responsibility of my Department.
Conducting an investigation into the outbreak is the responsibility of the Eastern Health and Social Services Board. My role and that of the Water Service is to assist the outbreak control team in every possible way. It was only on 31 August that a "boil water" notice was issued on the direction of the outbreak control team. On that day my officials were hand delivering the request to 17,500 homes. I hope that gives some indication of the sequence of events and the speed with which the officials dealt with the matter.
Last week, on an approach from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, I requested that my senior Water Service official, Mr Robert Martin, go to the Executive Committee to give a comprehensive briefing on this issue. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister must have been aware that my election manifesto commitment meant that I would not be at that meeting myself. It is impossible for them to have been unaware that that was the case.
I am prepared to come before the House to make statements and answer questions. In addition, I have offered myself to the Regional Development Committee for further presentations, as the situation develops, and to respond to further questions. In the minds of most people I am offering full, frank and co-operative consultation with all Members of this House. However, I will not respond to or engage in party politicking on this issue.
Madam Deputy Speaker, will you ask the Minister to answer my second question?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Supplementary questions can be put to the Minister. Will you repeat the question that you believe was not answered?
It concerned the future monitoring of the water supply.
Currently, very rigorous monitoring of the public water supply is in place, and this will continue. At the conclusion of this outbreak there will be a review of that monitoring process to see if it has been sufficient. I will report subsequent to that review.
I thank the Minister for his statement, particularly the penultimate paragraph. The name of the bug may be cryptosporidium, but the cause of this parasite getting into our water supply can only be put down to a mixture of carelessness, negligence and complacency on the part of the Department. I welcome the fact that the Minister has recognised that, to a degree, in his penultimate paragraph, where he refers to the underfunding of the Department over the past 20 years and the fact that the infrastructure is out of date. Only a complacent, careless or negligent Department would permit a 110-year-old conduit to continue to exist.
Under the Water and Sewerage Services (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1993, there is a duty on the Department to supply water that is wholesome at the time of supply and also to keep itself informed about the wholesomeness of the water supply. At this juncture the Department has failed in that respect.
As one who lives in the area I am expressing the view of a number of people who are extremely concerned. They are concerned at the length of time -
Mr R Hutchinson:
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will you instruct the speaker to ask his question and stop making a statement?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I ask the speaker to question the Minister. That is the purpose of the statement.
I will pass those comments to the Speaker on the appropriate occasion.
The questions I have put - and I will re-emphasise them - are to seek an assurance from the Minister that the Department has failed and was negligent or complacent in the fulfilment of its duty under the Water and Sewerage Services (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 by not supplying a wholesome supply of water to my constituents.
The other point on which I want to seek assurance from the Minister is that there was a degree of what verged on a cover-up in the length of time it took for information to be passed to our constituents. It has been known since early this year that there was a potential problem. Sheep and the poor farmer, rather than the bug, were being blamed.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I do not understand the gist of the question. Please get to the point of the question you are putting to the Minister.
To be direct, why were people who became ill with the bug cryptosporidium directed to take a water-only diet when it was the very water that was causing their illness? Patients in a particular home became very seriously ill as a result. I put it to the Minister that if the information had been presented earlier the outbreak would have been prevented.
Finally, does the Minister agree that the extra expense incurred by my constituents in Lagan Valley through having to boil water, or acquire bottled water - and where the amount of bottled water being consumed is 180 times the normal amount - should be rebated through the rates? Does the Minister agree that water and sewerage account for approximately 30% of the regional rate and that as the regional rate constitutes two thirds of the overall rate, there is a perfectly logical argument that my constituents should receive a rebate?
I refute the accusations of carelessness and negligence. There was a wholesome supply of water. The problem in relation to Lagmore conduit was as I have outlined. My officials have done everything possible; they continue to do everything possible; and they will in the future do everything possible to ensure that there is wholesome drinking water for the public.
Mr Close referred to the rates element. Any rate rebate - and I have seen that referred to previously in the public domain - is not a matter for the Department for Regional Development. Rating issues are the direct responsibility of the Department of Finance and Personnel and, therefore, ought to be directed to them.
The problems faced by Mr Close's constituents in the Lisburn area are ones that all of us identify with. The issue has to be speedily resolved, and we are currently doing that. Later this week, I hope to be in a position to announce the tie-up of the new connection to the Lagmore conduit to ensure that the bug is eradicated from the system. The new conduit, which is currently being laid, will be linked up within the affected area to ensure that wholesome supply of public water in the Lisburn area.
I welcome the good work done by the Department in getting to the source as quickly as it did. However, I have immediate and local concerns about the latter part of the Minister's statement concerning a ban on grazing in the Silent Valley catchment area.
Can he tell the House what is the acceptable level of cryptosporidium in the water supply? Will he specifically tell us how many instances there were in the survey - and in the ongoing surveys - where the level was exceeded in the Silent Valley catchment area? Can he also tell us by how much the level was exceeded? Will he tell us whether those samples - and I am talking about the Silent Valley again, not the most recent outbreak that my Colleague asked about - contained infection from a human or an animal source?
Will he also tell us whether these samples identified - and I refer here to the Silent Valley - contain infection from a human or an animal source, and if the actual source of this contamination can be identified? Will he also tell us why, since he has decided to ban grazing in this area, he and his Department are not prepared to pay compensation to those farmers who are already in straitened circumstances - perilous as Dr Paisley described it earlier - because of the state of the industry and who will, as a result, lose their winter fodder through no fault of their own? Did he consult with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development on the impact of such a decision and on the implications of the timing of the decision on the farming community in the Mournes?
Finally, why will he not do the responsible thing and sit down with his Executive Colleagues in health and agriculture and work out a sensible solution to all of the aspects of this crisis and not give the impression that this decision was nothing more than a political decoy, taken to save the DUP's face and shift the blame to someone else in order to cover up the incompetence of the policy of rotating ministerial posts?
There are a number of issues here with which I will attempt to deal.
With regard to compensation to the farmers in the Mournes, the legal advice to the Department is very clear. Grazing rights on these lands, which are owned by the Department for Regional Development, have traditionally been reviewed on an annual basis. The contract confers rights to grazing only and not possession of the grazing land itself. The legal advice is that we can discontinue the practice of granting grazing rights, regardless of how many years this practice has been in existence. I know and fully understand that this will come as a great disappointment to the farmers, but I must have regard for the legal position.
I have asked my officials - and I hope this will answer the other question about agriculture and rural development liaison - to continue their liaison with Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials to establish what measures, if any, can be taken to assist those farmers affected.
Mr ONeill also asked about the acceptable levels of cryptosporidium in the water. I will provide him with written specific details of the acceptable level, the level beyond which a "boil water" notice is issued. However, may I say to him that if there had been a breach of that level, which is accepted throughout the United Kingdom and is enforced in Northern Ireland, in the Silent Valley, a "boil water" notice would have been issued. It would not have been the responsibility of my Department to issue such a notice, as I have made clear in my response to previous questions.
I am disappointed with the Member's last question. I have endeavoured at all times through these problems and dilemmas - as I have with others - to deal with the subject matter efficiently and as effectively and impartially as possible. I have not and will not take party political advantage over such an issue as this. In this respect I find the question -
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Before sitting down will the Minister give way?
He cannot give way when answering questions.
I find it an unfortunate intervention that relates to participation in the Executive Committee when the Member knows that I stood on an election manifesto commitment which precluded my participation in an Executive in which there were members of an organisation linked to a paramilitary group. That continues to be my position.
I would like to thank the Minister for his statement and also for his reply to me last week. I may be breaking into the ambit of the Health Minister, but perhaps Members will bear with me.
In relation to the timing of the outbreak, it has been brought to my attention that on 25 August the public water supply was highly suspect, but the Water Service refused to acknowledge this. One of the doctors told the Health Minister when she visited Dunmurry last week that it would be foolish to underestimate the seriousness of the outbreak. However, only a few months before this a spokesman for the Eastern Health Board said that there was no reason to be unduly worried. Can the Minister confirm that there were sheep or cattle in the Silent Valley reservoir in May? Can he tell us - or find out - whether, in the various strains of this bug where people have been confirmed as infected, slurry has been confirmed as the problem? This has been identified as the cause in one case in Lisburn. Finally, does the Minister agree that it is extremely important to review the procedure so that information can be circulated to the general public more quickly?
Mr Davis has raised a number of issues. In relation to timing - and I thank him for that information, which we will follow up - the clear indication was, as I mentioned in my statement, that a risk assessment was done for Northern Ireland's water supply. The conduit, within which a breach has occurred, was not identified as high risk. I am satisfied that the risk assessment, which was undertaken by the Water Service, has been diligently carried out in accordance with the national standards. However, it would help to improve public confidence in the water supply if there were an independent review of these risk assessments. One possible approach might be a review undertaken by the Northern Ireland drinking water inspector. I have briefly mentioned this to the Minister of the Environment but need to speak to him further on this issue. The public can be reassured that every possible step will be taken to protect the public water supply.
Mr Davis referred to the possibility of sheep in the reservoir. Since the notice was issued to remove sheep from the lands surrounding the reservoir a small number of sheep have re-entered the reservoir. Steps have been taken to have them removed. I am not aware of any further information in addition to that. I have no information regarding the slurry. My officials will pursue this and will respond in writing to Mr Davis.
Mr P Robinson:
I congratulate the officials at the Department for Regional Development, and those working in and under the authority of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, for their response to this crisis. The Minister will want to take make it clear publicly how scandalous, inane and scurrilous the comments by the deputy leader of the Alliance Party and by the Member for South Down from the SDLP were. To suggest that he denies his - [Interruption]. The Member will get plenty of questions.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
We have only five minutes left for this subject. For the remaining four questions will Members please be very succinct in both questions and answers.
On a further point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not common practice that the debate and questions last for an hour after the Minister has finished making a statement? The Minister finished at one o'clock. You declared that this debate would finish at quarter to two, and I notice also that the clock has not been set for the one-hour period.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Thank you for that point of order. It was agreed by the Business Committee that there would be one hour for this debate. I am just checking Standing Orders to see if it is one hour following the ministerial statement. It is up to the Speaker to determine. The Business Committee has said one hour. That said, while we may try and go a little over the time allocated, I would prefer it if everyone could be succinct.
Mr P Robinson:
I can assure you that I will not take longer than Mr Close did to ask his question.
Does the Minister agree that it was scurrilous to suggest that he, his officials or the Water Service were responsible for a third party reaching the water system? Is Mr Close suggesting that there should be some monitoring so that the moment a cryptosporidium enters the water system, the Water Service should be aware of it? To help Members understand how absurd that suggestion is, perhaps the Minister will confirm that a cryptosporidium oocysts is one two-hundredth of a millimetre long. The length of water pipes and conduits in Northern Ireland is about 15,000 miles - more than the distance from here to Australia. It is just conceivable that an oocysts could enter the water supply via a third party. Should the criticism not therefore be of the contractor, or of the Planning Service for allowing it to happen, or of building control for not supervising it properly, instead of attempting to blame those hard-working officials in the Department for Regional Development?
Does the Minister recognise that the crisis that we have seen over the last number of days is such that the people in Northern Ireland will want from him a clear indication that we can have full confidence in the public water supply? Will he ensure that proper steps are taken to change the enquiry forms that are sent to the various Departments and agencies by Planning Service so that this kind of issue is taken into account? Planning decisions should be taken so as to ensure that no houses are built close to or beside the main water supply, especially if they have septic tanks.
I take this opportunity to refute again the terms used by Mr Close. The terms "carelessness" and "negligence" were totally inappropriate. The only issue on which I concur with the Member - and I expect and hope for his support - is the continuous underfunding of the system for almost 30 years. If there is a semblance of an issue arising from Mr Close's question with which I concur, it is that.
I thank Mr P Robinson and agree with him. It may be possible to address planning issues. I will consult with the Department of the Environment, and my officials will look at any possible measures that would preclude this from occurring again in close proximity to a dwelling.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
There are five more Members who want to ask questions. I am aware of the time and also of the need to break for lunch. Therefore I ask those Members to put only one question each.
Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his statement. I want to ask a couple of brief questions. The first one concerns the report from the expert group on cryptosporidium -
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I have asked that only one question be put to the Minister.
It will be one, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The expert group on cryptosporidium appointed by the Government made a further report in 1998 with 50 revised recommendations. Has the Water Service adopted and implemented those 50 revised recommendations?
The other point of clarification concerns the test evidence. On 25 August the Water Service was reluctant to accept that the public water supply was the cause of the outbreak of cryptosporidosis because there was no test evidence available. Can the Minister say if the results of the samples taken on 22 August were not available? Did the present test procedure fail, or was there no evidence of cryptosporidium in the samples? In the case of the latter, is the Minister satisfied that the present test procedure is adequate if it failed to detect cryptosporidium in the samples that subsequently proved to be infected?
I will deal with the issue of the recommendations arising from the original report. All 51 recommendations have been adopted, and implementation is ongoing.
I will return to the dates lest there be any doubt regarding the sequence of events. On 21 August - and only on 21 August - the Eastern Health Board became aware of a number of cases of cryptosporidiosis in the Poleglass area. There was no indication on 21 August that that could be traceable to the public water supply. By 25 August there were 20 confirmed cases, and an outbreak control team had been established.
Continuous sampling took place between 25 August and 29 August, and on the evening of 30 August the control team agreed to issue a "boil water" notice. That was issued on the morning of 31 August, by which time my officials were in the process of hand delivering 17,500 "boil water" notices. I hope that clarifies the speed, nature and chronological sequence of events that took place from 21 August to 31 August.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and we join in his praise for the Department for Regional Development officials on their actions, given the logistics that they presently operate under. However, I trust that a review of this particular incident will lead to more efficient methods of dealing with incidents of this nature in the future.
In his presentation, the Minister stated that 22 sources have been identified as having lower risk factors. Indeed, the incident occurred on one of these sources as a result, admittedly, of an external incursion into the system.
Will the Minister undertake to identify the other 21 sources and give the House an assurance that there will be an upgrading of risk assessment methodology? I would not expect that to be done today, but perhaps in writing at some later stage to the House.
I thank the Member for the succinct nature of his question; I will endeavour to be equally as succinct.
I want - and I am sure the Member will agree - to ensure that nothing is said that will lead to an increase in fear and suspicion among the public regarding the public water supply. While I take his point that the ingress occurred on one of the 22 sources identified as being lower risk, I would not want to publicly identify the other 21. I will undertake to write to the hon Member indicating measures that we can take in relation to the assessment of risk once this issue has been dealt with and is over.
Mr R Hutchinson:
I thank the Minister for his frank and honest statement. I too join in the thanks to Mr Martin and his colleagues for their very swift and professional reaction to the present outbreak. Is the Minister content with the communications between his Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development?
Yes, there has been comprehensive liaison. It has been instructive and very helpful in dealing with the problems. I am perfectly content with the relationship and hope that we can learn from this and build on it for the future.
Mr M Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. As the Silent Valley has been identified as the source with the highest risk of contamination, does the Minister agree that the 2003 timescale is totally inadequate? It is putting at risk the health of 250,000 people as well as placing a financial burden on sheep farmers. Does the Minister agree that, while an investment of £32 million to replace the conduit is welcome, to wait until 2003 for completion will put a terrible strain on the 250,000 people who expect to receive pure water? Given that funding should take priority over other matters, does the Minister agree that in the interim, compensation should be given to farmers? There is talk of farmers receiving some compensation for this year, but there is no mention of 2002 and 2003.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Thank you, Mr Murphy.
Mr M Murphy:
There is another part to the question.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Mr Murphy, I asked that Members put only one question.
Mr M Murphy:
It is very unfair. Like everyone else, I am entitled to ask this question, and I want it answered.
With regard to the outbreak in the Lisburn and Poleglass areas, what financial assistance will be given to those who have suffered from the financial strain, especially those in receipt of benefits who have had to buy bottled water, incurred higher electricity bills, and so on?
With regard to compensation I have already said that legal advice is of a particular nature and therefore precludes me from making any assurance on those grounds.
With regard to the Silent Valley, there is a proven risk of contamination to the public water supply from livestock grazing in reservoir catchment areas. There was an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in the Manchester area last year, and it was linked to sheep grazing around a reservoir.
The risk assessments carried out on the Water Service reservoirs have shown that the Silent Valley is particularly at risk due to the lack of a satisfactory level of treatment. The system to provide that level of treatment is in place, but it cannot be completed before the 2003 financial year. That is why sheep have been excluded from the area surrounding the Silent Valley. Any other measures taken by the Water Service to protect the wholesome water supply derived from there will be taken. However, a more categoric assurance can be given with regard to the completion of the treatment works in the reservoir area. They cannot be completed until the 2003 financial year.
My Colleague Mr ONeill adequately covered most of the problems pertaining to South Down. According to my notes he asked eight questions, but I picked up on only two answers. I will have to wait until I receive Hansard tomorrow to see all the answers.
I am disappointed that the Minister did not attend the Executive meeting on this specific issue. I am disappointed that he put party before people. It was his one chance to meet with the Executive and not have to make any excuses for doing so.
My question refers to compensation. Some farmers have to sell stock due to the lack and loss of grazing. When the funds from such sales are put into the bank they are not put into deposit accounts - the bank will keep the money. Meanwhile, three or four years of inflation will occur. Will the Minister introduce a subsidy scheme, or some form of financial assistance, to help farmers restock in three or four years time, bearing inflation in mind? The money farmers would receive by selling stock now will not be enough to purchase stock in three or four years' time. Will the Minister put in place a scheme that would adequately fund a restocking scheme in three or four years' time? Let us be hopeful that the farmer will get back to grazing the land.
I am sure Mr Bradley will appreciate that his latter point would be more appropriately made to his Colleague the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. I await that Department's response to those comments. The Member would not expect me to comment on them.
Mr Bradley raised the issue of my non-attendance at the Executive Committee. This matter required immediate action - not prolonged discussion - and that is what I undertook.
Are there other similarly constructed water conduits in Northern Ireland, and can the Minister assure the House that, as a result of lessons learnt from the outbreaks of cryptosporidium in Lisburn and Poleglass, this type of outbreak will not happen elsewhere in the Province?
The problem in relation to Lagmore was not in the intrinsic nature of the conduit. There was a third-party breach of the conduit. It was therefore a difficulty caused more by others than by the fact that the conduit was 110 years old. Up until this ingress there had not been incidents of this nature.
The sitting was suspended at 1.58 pm.
On resuming -
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I have received notice from the Minister of Education that he wishes to make a statement on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council held on 3 July 2000.
The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness):
With permission, A LeasCheann Comhairle, I will make a statement about the second sectoral meeting on education of the North/South Ministerial Council held in the Manor House at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, on Monday 3 July.
Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Sir Reg Empey and I attended the sectoral meeting of the Council. The Irish Government was represented by Dr Michael Woods TD, Minister for Education and Science. This statement has been approved by Sir Reg Empey and is also made on his behalf.
The main objective of the meeting was to review the progress made by the working groups which we agreed to establish at the first meeting on 3 February in relation to educational underachievement, special education needs and teacher qualifications. These working groups will bring forward to the next council meeting in the autumn proposals on the priorities which they have identified, delivery measures which might be adopted and suggested timescales for addressing the range of issues involved.
We also noted that a contract had been agreed by my Department and the Department of Education and Science in Dublin with the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh for the conduct of an evaluation of the range and effectiveness of current initiatives on school, teacher and youth exchanges. The study will also make recommendations to a steering committee, representative of both Administrations, on the possibilities for a coherent, integrated strategy for the future. The study is scheduled to be completed by 31 October this year.
The council also noted a range of recent co-operative ventures in the field of education since its last meeting. These included the very successful Doors project, which was a celebration of lifelong learning through performances involving over 1,700 young people at four locations on the island - Cork, Dublin, Belfast and Derry City - and the conference, Education - the Challenges to 2020, which was held at Stranmillis University College on 30 May. This was a very significant conference, which was attended by Minister Woods, Minister Farren, the United States Secretary for Education, Richard Riley, and myself.
Finally, against the background of EU programmes, the council noted with satisfaction the significant co-operation between the two Administrations in the past and the opportunities for further collaboration under the new round of EU programmes, particularly through the Peace II operational programme. The council agreed a range of priority areas in both education and the youth sector that might be supported through that programme.
In addition, the council noted that 2001 has been designated as the European year of languages and agreed that a joint conference would be organised to address issues of common interest in the area of language learning. The next meeting of the council is planned for 24 November in the South.
The council agreed that text of a communiqué which was issued following the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.
The Chairperson of the Education Committee (Mr Kennedy): I am grateful for the opportunity to ask some questions. The Minister has sold the virtues, whatever they be, of North/South co-operation, yet he steadfastly refuses to co-operate in the investigation of the Omagh bombing and the apprehension of those responsible for it, in spite of knowledge undoubtedly in his possession. He would therefore have to accept that his efforts in North/South co-operation are meaningless.
When does the Minister intend to inform the Assembly Education Committee about the detail of the issues raised at the second sectoral meeting on education, particularly given our stated interest in underachievement?
What, if any, progress has been made by the steering groups? I find that both the statement made today and the communiqué lodged in the Assembly Library are very short in detail in all those matters. The remarks I made at the outset are crucial.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I remind Members that these are questions on the North/South Ministerial Council. The reference made by Mr Kennedy in his opening remarks does not need to be responded to by the Minister.
Mr M McGuinness:
Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle, for pointing out that the first issue raised is not within the purview of the North/South Ministerial Council.
There have been a number of briefing sessions between my officials and the Education Committee to inform the Committee about these matters. My officials are quite within their rights to inform the Education Committee of the details of the conduct of the North/South Ministerial Council meetings. If there is dissatisfaction about that level of contact, obviously it is my responsibility to investigate with my officials whether or not questions that have been asked about the conduct of the North/South Ministerial Council meetings have been adequately answered. I will ensure that they are, because I am very much in favour of a good working relationship between the Department and the Education Committee. I will endeavour to ensure that whatever information is required is made available at the earliest possible moment.
Quite a number of the working parties have been established. They are made up of civil servants from our Department and from the Department of Education and Science in Dublin. The information regarding that will be made available to the Committee at the earliest opportunity. I do not have the names before me, but I will endeavour to ensure that the names of all the civil servants, North and South, who make up the joint working groups will be sent to the Committee as a matter of urgency.
It is also important to point out that all the papers from the North/South Ministerial Council meetings on education went to the Executive, including the terms of reference of the steering groups, before the North/South Ministerial Council meeting. It is not a huge issue for me. People are entitled to information. I will ensure that the fullest information about the composition of these bodies is sent to the Committee.
As for the issue of special educational needs, this is a very important area of our work. My Department believes it is absolutely vital that we deal with the issue of educational underachievement. That is going to be a huge issue for us. The issues of attendance, literacy and numeracy, and child protection are also vital. They are key areas for us, and we are endeavouring to push forward work in all of them as a matter of urgency.
Regarding EU support, everyone will be aware that funding will be available under Peace II.
At this stage it is difficult to be precise. Officials have only recently received the European Commission's comments on the draft programme which was submitted earlier this year. These comments will be negotiated with the commission over the next few weeks. Once these are concluded and a programme is agreed, applications for funding will be invited. I would expect that funds will not begin to flow until early next year.
The new peace programme will be the last time that we have a special funding package from the EU. The programme will operate North and South. We have to use the funds available to the best advantage of our young people. That is for sure. We are particularly keen to support initiatives that address educational disadvantage and promote social inclusion. Measures which help and encourage young people to remain in education and improve basic skills which will help them gain employment will be particularly important.
I am delighted to see that 2001 has been designated the European year of languages. Will the Minister seek to appoint more Irish-language teachers and special language counsellors to assist young people seeking to learn Irish, and provide facilities and other supports to make Irish an attractive choice for students?
Mr M McGuinness:
The European year of languages is an opportunity to actively promote the learning of other languages. There will be a range of activities taking place in each country and collaboration between countries. This presents a special opportunity for all of us on this island to celebrate the diversity of languages in Europe and to encourage the learning and use of other languages.
The themes for the conferences have not yet been developed, but I hope to give the Assembly some information after the next sectoral meeting. The European year of languages is intended to celebrate the diversity of languages in Europe and to encourage the learning of other languages. I encourage all young people to try to gain some knowledge and appreciation of other languages. I appreciate the importance of ensuring that there are enough fully qualified Irish-language teachers. That is vitally important.
The establishment over the summer of Comhairle na Réamhscolaíochta, which has now met as a fully-fledged educational body, will make a huge contribution to the development of the Irish language on the island of Ireland. It will give us all an opportunity to fulfil our very clear responsibilities to parents, pupils and educationalists who are responsible for teaching through the medium of Irish. In many parts of the island of Ireland, and specifically within the part of Ireland that is under our control, it is obvious that many communities are rediscovering the language. They value its importance in terms of culture and heritage. It is not confined to Nationalist and Republican areas. There is very broad appreciation in the Unionist community that this is something which enriches all of us. That is something that can be a tremendous unifying force if it is managed and conducted properly.
Mr S Wilson:
I note that the statement starts with the Minister declaring that he is speaking on behalf of Sir Reg Empey. Is the Northern Ireland Executive now such a cosy arrangement that IRA/Sinn Féin can speak for the Ulster Unionist Party, or is this yet another example of the Minister stepping outside his responsibility and exceeding his authority?
There is a plethora of meetings, groups, contracts, conferences in this statement: sectoral meetings, working groups, contracts with other bodies to carry out studies, conferences on this, and conferences on that. All of this is work which could be done within Northern Ireland itself. What is the approximate cost of all this "North/Southery"? We seem to get the same kind of reports on every occasion, so what has actually come out of it?
Lastly, I notice that there is to be a conference on language learning. Will there be a session on doublespeak? On one hand, the Minister supports the Peace II programme, while, as Danny Kennedy has pointed out, he refuses to say - in fact, he defiantly proclaims he would not say - if he knows who was responsible for the Omagh bomb. Will the Minister -
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Mr M McGuinness:
Sir Reg Empey agreed the content of the statement that I have made for both of us. If people listen to the contributions of other Ministers, it will become clear that representatives of the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and Sinn Féin who make up the ministerial team at Executive meetings are working well together. They are very conscious of their responsibilities to the people, and work in such a fashion as can contribute greatly to the gaining of confidence. We can overcome our problems and our difficulties.
Regarding how much this has cost and who is going to pay for it, the areas that we have identified are areas that we would all be working on anyway, both North and South. We are enhancing that by sharing good practice and developing common approaches and common answers to shared problems. To that extent, we expect the work at this stage to be very largely cost- neutral. There may be some limited extra expenditure incurred on travel, and perhaps materials, but this will be found from within existing departmental budgets. Obviously there may be cost implications arising from proposals from the working groups, and I will consider these at the appropriate time. Should there be a conference on doublespeak, we will invite the Member to be there.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an tuairisc seo. Is í an cheist atá agam ná: ar stad obair na Comhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas ar an oideachas le linn do na hinstitiúidí polaitiúla bheith ar ceal?
I welcome this report. I welcome continuing close contacts between the Minister and the Education Committee, of which I am happy to say I was a member. Did the period of suspension of the political institutions disrupt the work of the North/South Ministerial Council with respect to education? Did it prevent or stall the very valuable work in the field of educational progress being carried out by the North/South Ministerial Council?
Mr M McGuinness:
The suspension certainly did not stop it, but it did delay it. There is no question about that. Without ministerial direction, there was never going to be the essential progress that needed to be made. Since the institutions have been re-established and the Ministers are back working again, it is clear from the last North/South Ministerial Council meeting that civil servants in the Department of Education and Science and ourselves here in the North are working speedily to make up the ground which was lost. I am confident that we will do that, that we will do it this year and that we can all move on happily to put in place the processes which we know are required to improve the educational standards of all the children on this island.
In his statement, the Minister mentioned both teaching qualifications and teacher exchanges between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. What progress has been made in facilitating the movement of qualified teachers from Northern Ireland to work in the Republic of Ireland? Hitherto there have been a number of obstacles or barriers to such movement of labour - notably the Irish language requirement, even in cases where the main occupation of the teacher is not actually teaching Irish itself, be it at the primary or secondary level.
Mr M McGuinness:
We have already gone a long way towards mutual recognition of qualifications, in line with European Union directives. The South already accepts graduates from certain teacher training courses, and we are looking at the practicalities of extending that. The key issue concerns an assurance about the quality of training provided and the confidence of teachers to teach in our schools.
On the issue of the Irish language, we have set up the working group without prejudice as to what recommendations may emerge. The South has already gone a considerable way towards relaxing the Irish language requirement, and it will undoubtedly feature in future discussions.
I welcome the Minister's statement on the working groups set up. I would particularly like to touch on special education needs. Will the Minister ensure that when that group is prioritising it will consider making sure that children with disabilities are given an automatic right to enter mainstream education and that appropriate funding is put in place?
Mr M McGuinness:
We will certainly make that a priority. In our discussions with officials from the South it has been appreciated that this is a vitally important area. As head of the Department of Education, following a number of recent visits to special education schools, I have indicated to officials that I want this to be regarded as a priority. Many years ago special education establishments were effectively old hospitals under the remit of the Department of Health. They were then transferred to the Department of Education. Those are the ones I am particularly concerned about. Through visiting them it is clear that the conditions under which pupils, parents and teachers have to operate are far from satisfactory. It is a huge issue, and I will be paying particular attention to it in future.
The Minister mentions a number of areas of concern - educational underachievement, special education and teacher qualifications. Which university or college in the South is dealing with underachievement? How are the issues apportioned? Who is funding the investigations, and when can we expect a report on the areas of concern? Can the Minister explain what is meant by "coherent, integrated strategy for the future"? Is it the harmonisation of programmes North and South? Is it upward or downward harmonisation? What will it mean for educational standards in Northern Ireland?
Having looked at those priorities in his statement he then talks about another range of priorities under Peace II. Is the money that is coming from Europe under Peace II additional to the educational budget? Can he assure us that that money will not be funding something that would already be part of our educational system?
The phrase "range of priorities" is bland. Having listed the medium priorities that are already under investigation, is anyone in the working group asking about solutions which might already exist in Europe or America, or in some of the Third-World countries where great strides are being made in education? In other words, could we end up spending Peace II money simply to spend money rather than ensure educational advancement?
My last question also concerns co-operation. Why does the South of Ireland refuse to pay the pension of a teacher or a lecturer in the North of Ireland? This has been much lobbied about by those who have spent part of a lifetime in the South of Ireland and wish to retire, particularly in the border areas. They may want to enjoy a higher standard of living, but they certainly cannot get paid from the South. That sort of co-operation happens freely elsewhere in Europe. I wonder why the South of Ireland is lagging so far behind.
Mr M McGuinness:
There are a number of questions there, and if I miss any of them I will gladly give the Member a written answer.
I have made it very clear that the working groups that we have established will be presenting interim reports for the next North/South Ministerial Council. Harmonisation is not an issue. We are learning from each other. We are sharing best practice. The education system's curriculum and exams are very different, as Members know, but obviously we are trying to bring about a situation where we learn effectively from each other. Our remit is very carefully laid down, and nobody can be under any illusions about hidden agendas or anything else. At the same time, however, we think it important to state that we do appreciate that as we develop our relationships on the island we must, to enable us to provide the best possible education for all of the children who live on this island, be open to ideas and suggestions.
If people come forward with innovative schemes, the sensible thing to do is to have all of that out in the open, and that is what the Assembly is for. That is why I must come here and report back. I am not going to be part of anything which attempts by sleight of hand to make people like Oliver Gibson or anybody else nervous about the work that we are involved in, and for that reason we need to be very measured about how we move forward on the issue.
With regard to the Peace II money, all the funding is additional money, and priorities and negotiations with the EU Commission will finalise those details. The Assembly will be advised of them later.
The matter of teachers and the pension situation obviously is a difficulty at the moment. A teacher who moves to take up a job in either the North or the South cannot add his previous service to his new employment for the purposes of calculating pension benefits. This is an obstacle to mobility, and its removal would benefit all teachers, North and South. It is vital that we look at the concerns of teachers and that we try to facilitate them. Teachers in the South may also have problems and difficulties.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate the council and the Ministers on the very successful Doors project, a celebration of lifelong learning, involving young people in Ireland. There has been excellent feedback from all who participated in it. I ask the Minister what measures the North/South Council is undertaking to provide adequate child protection throughout the island of Ireland. Is this matter under consideration by any of the three working groups, or is it one of the priority areas in education and the youth sector?
Mr M McGuinness:
Last week I launched a CD-ROM at the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry.
That was a joint project between my Department and the Department of Education and Science in Dublin. It was hugely successful in bringing together storytellers from all over the island of Ireland. From this week, the CD-ROM is being issued to every school on the island. That is an example of the important and valuable work that can be done.