Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 11 September 2000 (continued)

2.45 pm

The remit of the joint working group on child protection is to look at how we can put in place the necessary mechanisms, both North and South, to enable us to identify people throughout these islands who are considered to be unsuitable to work with children - not just in education but in any setting, statutory or voluntary - and link those mechanisms in to similar ones in England, Wales and Scotland. In an age when the world is, in effect, getting smaller and there is much free travel in Europe, we cannot ignore the fact that we may need to extend those mechanisms on to the European mainland. We all know that there have been some disgraceful cases of child abuse in different European countries. People are travelling more than ever before, and we know that those who seek to take advantage of young children will go to any lengths. They do not necessarily reside in these islands, so it is important, in a European context, that we be prepared.

While it is education-led, this group also has representatives from the health sectors both North and South. The group has exchanged papers on current approaches to child protection and employment issues and is also examining the parameters of the task and the many sensitive and legal issues involved. The group has been briefed on the position in England, where much of the necessary underpinning legislation and procedures are already in place.

Mrs E Bell:

I congratulate the Minister on the Doors project, which was mentioned in his statement. I attended the concert in the Waterfront Hall, and it was a memorable evening. I hope that there will be further similar projects.

In an answer to the Chairman of the Education Committee, the Minister made some comments about his relationship with the Education Committee. I am sure that he wishes to have as good a working relationship as possible with that Committee. However, I was concerned by some of his other comments about the working groups on educational underachievement. When he says that these are serious issues from his point of view, I take it that he means from the Department's point of view. Is the Minister aware that the Education Committee's future programme of work will include those issues? Will he consider putting in place a better mechanism than the placing of his statements and the minutes in the library? Because of the work that we are undertaking, I ask him to consider putting a mechanism in place by which we would be informed directly of the work being done, and of progress, so that we are not dependent on the measures that he has already mentioned.

I am concerned that there would be serious overlap and duplication between the work carried out by these groups and by our Committee and that this would lead to a lack of credibility and results. I approve of the statement but hope that, rather than waiting for such a statement to be made, the Education Committee could have some sight of the work that is being done in order to avoid overlap.

Mr M McGuinness:

I have listened carefully to what the Chairman of the Education Committee and Mrs Bell have said, and they have made an important point. I have no difficulty whatsoever about establishing a mechanism to ensure that the Committee is made aware of the outcome of these meetings before we issue what some would consider to be a bland statement about them.

Ms McWilliams:

I commend the Minister for taking forward the issue of child protection so urgently and so quickly. It was raised at the time of the last North/South Ministerial Council statement in the Assembly. Was new legislation required in the Republic of Ireland as it was in Northern Ireland? I note that legislation now has to come through our Committee for the exchange of details across jurisdictions. If something similar is required in the Oireachtas, implementation will obviously be a lengthy process.

I congratulate Assembly Member Eileen Bell, who attended the Doors project. "Fantastic" is the only word to describe it. Seventeen hundred young people from all corners of this island came together, and the logistics of bringing them together and enabling them to make the presentations they did were extraordinary. It was also fantastic for us to witness the integration of business and education in launching that initiative.

No doubt those young people learned a great deal from their involvement - and that leads me to my next question. For some time now I have been slightly sceptical about exchanges between Northern Ireland and the Republic. They may have been extremely useful in breaking down the demonisation, the stereotypical images and myths and, indeed, the fear of crossing the border, be it on the part of those in the Republic who had never visited Northern Ireland in their lives, or those from schools in Northern Ireland who felt that strange people lived on the other side. It would be useful to see a coherent, integrated strategy produced to test the effectiveness of those visits. I ask this question because of my own experience as a parent. I have been involved as a parent -

Madam Deputy Speaker:

The Member will move directly to the question she wishes to raise.

Ms McWilliams:

The reason I ask this question is that, as a parent, I had it brought to my attention at a school meeting that schoolteachers were fearful of introducing state and maintained schools to each other before joint visits across the border under the education for mutual understanding programme. As a result, most education for mutual understanding visits were to Scotland and England.

I ask this question because even though we have a programme on education for mutual understanding, there is a great deal of fear about cross-border exchanges. Indeed, we have heard this from Members in this Chamber already - and particularly from a DUP Member, a former teacher, who probably would have nothing whatsoever to do with exchange visits if they involved his schoolchildren.

Although the Minister says that a range of priority areas have been agreed for education and the youth sector under the Peace II programme, I am concerned that we have absolutely no detail whatsoever on these priorities, and I would like to see them attached to future statements.

Mr M McGuinness:

There will very probably have to be legislation in Dublin. The second issue the Member raised is also important. In the course of my travels around different schools it has become clear that there is a tremendous willingness in both the state and maintained sectors to work together. I have seen an incredible number of joint projects taking place and have visited a number of schools in which teachers from both sectors are participating in prize-givings and education for mutual understanding. We are winning the battle in the North.

In the light of the work of Andy Pollak and his people at the Centre for Cross-Border Studies, it is important that people understand that for a number of years now, there has been a significant number of cross-border exchanges of teachers, pupils and young people.

We needed to get a better understanding of the range of exchanges involved and to evaluate their effectiveness. That is precisely what I think the Member is talking about. It is all very well improving the situation here in the North, but if we are not improving it to such an extent that people feel freed up to participate in these very important programmes, then we are going to have difficulties. Therefore evaluating the effectiveness of these at this time is vitally important. The research will look at issues such as the type of exchanges, their origins, their objectives, the management and financial arrangements and the curriculum areas involved. The research will also look at the scope for more effective management of exchanges to reduce duplication of effort and at how best practice might be mainstreamed and disseminated.

One key purpose of the research into exchanges is to look at the effectiveness of visits and to identify best practice in this area, not only for children, but also for teachers and the youth service, for which we have a responsibility.

With regard to the EU programmes, we are all very conscious that we must move forward in a sensible way. We want to encourage and support measures that are designed to help and support our most disadvantaged young people. It is very important that we build on the peace process and support projects that promote mutual understanding and reconciliation among young people.

The debate over the years has tended to focus and concentrate on relationships in the North, when we all know that relationships throughout the island are just as important, especially in an age when people are moving back and forward more freely, and there is a greater oneness.

The Good Friday Agreement clearly indicated that a huge number of people want to work to end divisions on the island. Those people have children who are at school, so they are very keen for the Assembly and the Executive to give leadership. One way is through the proper use of finances accruing from the EU peace programme and proper direction in putting in place best practice so that we can add value to the work already done. The sooner we do that the better. There are going to be difficulties and problems, such as have been referred to, but our job and responsibility is to move forward to try to resolve them as a matter of urgency.

There is a huge responsibility for politicians from every party to give proper leadership at this time. We have come through a very difficult period recently. The situation on the Shankill Road was a tragedy and one we want to see resolved as a matter of urgency. When we get those difficulties out of the road we can then focus on politicians of all descriptions working in harmony. One example is Reg Empey's visit to the irish language body on the Falls Road. He deserves tremendous credit for that. Also, a delegation of people from this Assembly went to the United States in an effort to seek work for our young people. This clearly shows that we have the ability to overcome our problems and difficulties.

That is the big picture. My responsibility is education. All we can do is try to get that right. As we continue to work with our counterparts in the South, there is no doubt that we can overcome all the difficulties mentioned.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I remind all Members that they should keep to the content of the North/South statement.

Mr Dallat:

I am delighted that the council has noted that next year is the European Year of Languages. Does the Minister support the idea of a short, sharp survey in both parts of Ireland to establish the level of knowledge and interest in modern languages? Also, what can be done to ensure that all young people have the best possible opportunities to be multilingual in an ever more global environment?

3.00 pm

Mr M McGuinness:

This is a hugely important area. It is vitally important that the European Year of Languages be intended to celebrate the diversity of languages in use in Europe and to encourage the learning of other languages. From our perspective in education, we believe it is vitally important that in a changing world, a world that is getting smaller for all of us, there are obvious economic prospects for our young people, not just those who work in Europe but in other parts of the world as well, and it is absolutely essential that people have other languages.

We are told that in a few years Chinese will be a huge Internet language, and it is extremely important that we give due consideration to that. I have no doubt that officials in my Department are very keen to establish how interested young people are in the learning of languages, and the information that we have makes it clear that a sizeable percentage of school-going pupils are interested in learning languages. I agree with the sentiment that the Member expressed. We will ensure that, at our end, at least, as we are working with officials from the Department of Education in the South, we will give due consideration to that in the future.

Mr McHugh:

A LeasCheann Comhairle, I welcome the Minister's work with the council on cross-border areas, in particular those of underachievement and child protection. I think there is a connection between those two issues. I would like to know if what they are working towards will achieve the objectives of life-long learning and youth issues in particular. One of the youth issues is that of life skills; the need for young people not only to achieve their educational needs but also to be able to deal with life issues when they leave education and face the wider world. That is a difficulty that I find people have now. Young people have great needs in that respect, and I wonder if the work that is being done will meet them.

When we have to face the educational challenges of the year 2020 in particular, we will find that these needs will become even more focused. Will the curriculum, on both sides of the border, be able to deal with whatever economic situation we will be facing in the years that lie ahead in terms of working towards an all-Ireland way of looking at things? I sometimes feel that the Celtic tiger has allowed people down South to become quite protective of what they have achieved, and they have difficulty in looking outside at people trying to come into this country.

Mr M McGuinness:

Child protection is an important issue. At a previous question-and-answer session in the Assembly some people wondered whether it was suitably positioned in the area of educational underachievement, but we picked the issues of attendance, literacy and numeracy and child protection because we believe that these are key issues in tackling educational underachievement. In most of the schools where performance is lowest, attendance rates are also too low. Teachers cannot teach pupils who are not there. Literacy and numeracy are the basic skills which open the door to the rest of the curriculum and are the skills which employers complain are poor in too many school leavers. All of us have a fundamental duty in respect of child protection. Children cannot learn if they do not feel safe. These issues were identified because they are priorities, North and South. It is important that we get this right and recognise the problems and difficulties that this presents for pupils and parents.

Both Departments are addressing the issues of life skills and the youth sector. Our own curriculum review is examining these issues very closely. Life skills will be a key element of the review and a key element of the revised curriculum.

The Environment:
 North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting


The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement about the first North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on the environment which was held in Interpoint, Belfast on Wednesday 28 June 2000. Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Ms Bairbre de Brún and I attended the meeting, which I chaired. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Noel Dempsey TD, Minister for the Environment and Local Government. This statement has been approved by Ms de Brún and is also made on her behalf.

The council recognised the important contributions already being made to the care of the environment by the Environment Departments and the agencies involved and by the various co-operative arrangements already in place. Both delegations looked forward to further significant progress arising from their co-operation in the council. The council considered and noted a situation report which reviewed the high level of existing co-operation between the two Departments on the seven environmental issues for enhanced co-operation which were mandated by the first plenary of the North/South Ministerial Council in Armagh on 13 December 1999. These issues include environmental research, environmental information, environmental protection, sustainable development, catchment-based water quality strategies, agriculture and the environment and waste management in a cross-border context. The paper also identified opportunities for a range of future and joint actions which will provide a work programme for this sector of the North/South Ministerial Council.

The council agreed that initial efforts should be concentrated on those areas where strong foundations for joint actions have already been laid and which have the greatest potential for early mutual benefits. Accordingly, it was agreed that environmental research and water quality management should be selected as the initial steps in a rolling programme of work.

In the interests of enhanced co-operation on environmental research, the council approved the establishment of a joint register of current research projects and agreed that officials should work together to identify new technologies for monitoring.

Delegates then noted the current levels of co-operation on matters relating to water quality which were detailed in the second paper tabled at the meeting. The council approved the establishment of a working group of officials to consider matters relating to water quality strategies in relation to the Erne and Foyle catchments and implementation of the proposed EU water framework directive. The Council agreed that the second sectoral meeting on the environment would take place in October in the South.

Finally, the council considered and agreed to a text of a joint communiqué which was issued after the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

The Chairperson of the Environment Committee (Rev Dr William McCrea):

I thank the Minister for his statement. However, it raises a number of issues that will no doubt interest the members of my Committee. I note from his statement that it has been agreed to establish a working group of officials to look after matters relating to water quality. Can the Minister tell the House how this will be funded? Will the Department's budget, which is already under severe pressure, be increased to facilitate this work? Vital work that the Department of the Environment ought to be taking forward in respect of the Planning Service and the Environment and Heritage Service has not been carried out because of a lack of funding. Surely the diversion of finances and funds to set up more working groups is totally unacceptable for an already highly underfunded Department. On 7 September the Committee was informed that some of our built heritage may be lost because of lack of funding.

A new working group partially financed by the Department cannot be justified. I note from the statement that there are already various co-operative arrangements in place. What are those? I am sure my Committee would like to know how those arrangements will operate. The Minister referred to a range of future actions which will provide a work programme for the environment sector. When does he plan to advise the Environment Committee of the details? On this day, our first day back after the summer recess, we have been inundated with cross-border, North/South Ministerial statements. I often wonder who governs this Province, and who has the final say.

Mr Foster:

I note what the Member says about budgets and finances. We all worry about departmental finances. I am very aware, as is the Assembly, that my Department is under-funded in many aspects. These are issues, which we took under our wing, and which are currently under investigation. These are the initial stages. The issues were chosen to reflect areas where strong foundations for joint action had already been laid and which had the greatest potential for early regional benefits.

The funding issue has not been investigated in depth, but it is something we are aware of. We are looking for cross-border benefits particularly where waterways, pollution and European directives are concerned. There will be many benefits. There will be shared information in areas of mutual interest. There will be less duplication of research with consequent financial benefits. There will be assistance in identifying areas of collaboration, thereby maximising the output from limited resources. There will be assistance in the formulation of joint initiatives which might qualify for European funding, which will be important - European funding will come into this and will be an area which we will be pursuing. There will be potential efficiencies and cost savings. There will be shared monitoring systems and information on matters of mutual interest. There will be consistent assessment on forecasting environmental trends in both parts of the island in relation to shared resources. There will be the facilitation of future environmental management initiatives.

Those are large, important issues, which have been running for many years. Although these issues are not new, I take the financial aspects into consideration. Where there is mutual benefit, I have no hesitation in working on joint border co-operation.

Mrs Carson:

A North/South body has some advantages. At least we can scrutinise some of the problems and trouble we get from the South of Ireland and have the opportunity to do something about them. The issues discussed at the meeting of the North/South Ministerial sectoral meeting on 28 June included environmental research, information protection and catchment-based, water-quality strategies. I was interested to see that environmental research and water-quality strategies were chosen as initial steps in the proposed programme.

I asked the Minister if it was correct that the environmental service of the Republic of Ireland, by neglect and poor control of its own systems, allowed zebra mussels to spread from the Limerick area throughout the Shannon system. It is known that the passage of boats from the Shannon system has spread the scourge of zebra mussels into the Erne system. Will the Minister raise this problem with the Republic of Ireland's environment Department? At their next meeting, will the Minister ask what it intends to do about inspecting boats and vessels coming from the Shannon system in order to prevent problems spreading to the Erne system?

Mr Foster:

The points made by the Member project the absolute need for co-operation on environmental issues. We are concerned when environmental co-operation is lacking. I cannot answer her question at this time. However, the question highlights what cross-border co-operation is about. As we are neighbours, the two jurisdictions need to work together to ensure that environmental issues are properly dealt with.

If we have to contend with them, we will. It is a very important question and one that I can take on board. I want to emphasise the fact that it is important to have co-operation where you have cross-border water issues, and we will be seeking that in the joint Ministerial Council.

3.15 pm

Mr A Doherty:

I thank the Minister for his statement. The council agreed that

"initial effort should be concentrated on those areas where strong foundations for joint action have already been laid and which have the greatest potential for early mutual benefits."

That is very sensible. The choice of environmental research and water-quality management as initial steps may be timely, particularly in view of the current serious situation regarding water pollution. Does the Minister agree that waste management in a cross-border context is at least as urgent and clearly meets the criteria set down in his statement? As an illustration, I draw the Minister's attention to the very valuable work being done by, among others, the north-west region cross-border group, and I suggest that significant mutual benefit would come from early council action in that area.

Mr Foster:

Waste management is a big issue. The Member referred to ongoing cross-border issues. The UK plan, which is currently under review, takes account of the need to encourage cross-border co-operation on waste management issues, and that is what we are trying to achieve. As regards the proposed changes, import and export of waste for disposal would be permitted where there are sound economic and environmental reasons for such activity and if such activity is included in a district council's waste management plan.

I am confident that these changes will provide sufficient flexibility to promote and encourage co-operation on waste management issues. Waste management is a very important issue. The Member has highlighted it; we will be highlighting it also. The issue will not go unnoticed.

Mr McLaughlin:

A Cheann Comhairle, I welcome the Minister's statement. Waste management is an issue currently being discussed, and a consultation exercise is taking place across the island. District and county councils North and South are debating this very important issue. There has been much talk about the waste hierarchy under the generic term of waste management.

There are serious concerns, which public opinion is reflecting. Insufficient attention is being paid to waste reduction. Again, I welcome the joint studies and the reference in the Minister's statement to environmental research. Can the Minister - particularly given his response to my earlier question that he has no plans to order a moratorium on the construction of incinerator plants - assure us that this environmental research programme will give proper place to policies on waste reduction that would be enforced by the necessary legislation?

Mr Foster:

The waste management strategy report has been out since March. Undoubtedly, it is a big issue in Northern Ireland. We are very much subject to EU regulations and requirements, and if we do not live up to those requirements infraction proceedings will take place.

I cannot give the Member the assurance he seeks on incinerators. I am not sure what aspect he was referring to. I assure him that the waste management strategy needs the help and the co-operation of everyone in the Province, whether householder or manufacturer. As well as waste disposal, there are the three Rs - reduce, reuse, and recycle. Currently, they are big issues in my Department, as, indeed, are landfill sites. I assure Members that they will not go unnoticed. They will be taken into consideration. However, it will take the co-operation, help and consideration of all in the community.

Mr J Wilson:

I thank the Minister for his statement, and I congratulate him on its content.

In particular, I wish to congratulate him on setting the microscope firmly over the question of water quality. It is mentioned several times in his brief report, but I want to focus on the final page where it is stated that the council approved the establishment of a working group of officials to consider matters relating to water-quality strategies for the Erne and Foyle catchments and implementation of the European Union's water framework directive.

I am concerned about the large chunk of water right in the middle of the Province. It does not straddle the border, and perhaps it is right that for that reason it is not mentioned in this report. My Colleague, Joan Carson, is absolutely right that the scourge of zebra mussel in Lough Erne of which we are all aware and which is understood to have come up from the Shannon, Lough Derg and other places could easily be shifted from the Erne catchment to Lough Neagh. Craft can be lifted out of the water from the Shannon and Lough Erne and come to Lough Neagh, and zebra mussels could be attached to those crafts.

It is also my understanding that commercially caught eels from the Shannon and Lough Erne stop off on the shores of Lough Neagh to be collected by the transporters which ship them to the continent and that the water from the Erne and the Shannon systems is then deposited in Lough Neagh. One can easily see that what has happened is both a tragedy and a disaster.

I have been told that 300,000 zebra mussels can attach themselves to an area of one square metre. I have seen them myself. What would happen if that were to spread from the Shannon catchment area through Lough Erne and into Lough Neagh does not bear thinking about.

While I understand why Lough Neagh is not mentioned in this report, my question to the Minister is this: will the research and the work done on water quality in those other places be put to good use and the lessons learned applied to other waters in the Province?

Mr Foster:

We have addressed water-quality strategies for the Erne and Foyle catchments because of the cross-border aspect. I can assure the Member that through the water-strategy management, sizeable areas of water such as Lough Neagh and others will certainly be closely examined and guarded.

I am very aware of the mussel problem in Lough Erne. We do not want that to happen consistently - it has to be stopped; it is difficult for all concerned. There is a big problem in the Erne and right down into the lake at Garrison. I am watching that situation very closely. It will not go unnoticed. I can assure Mr Wilson that we will not forget Lough Neagh or any other waterways. Initially I mentioned the Erne and the Foyle because they are cross-border waterways.

Mr Byrne:

I would like to welcome the Minister's statement and to pay tribute to him for his involvement over many years in trying to promote meaningful cross-border co-operation.

With regard to agriculture and the environment, I would like the Minister, at the next conference, to address a problem that is prevalent in the counties of Fermanagh, Tyrone, Monaghan and Cavan - mushroom compost waste. There is a large mushroom industry in those counties, but there is a problem with mushroom compost waste, and I would like it discussed in the future.

I welcome the fact that waste management is being considered in a cross-border dimension. Landfill sites are filling up, and a major problem is developing. I would like to encourage the Minister in that regard.

Mr Foster:

Agricultural waste was not one of the topics chosen for immediate consideration, but it was identified as being one for possible future action. In the meantime, officials will continue to consult closely with the relevant authorities in the Republic of Ireland to ensure a consistent and complementary approach to this subject.

Landfill, which is a big issue, and waste management are incorporated under the umbrella of waste-management strategy. We will be taking whatever steps necessary and worthwhile to the Province to ensure that we can sort that out. It is a big issue - agriculture will certainly have to be looked at.

Mr Hussey:

I thank the Minister for his statement, and I also welcome his responses to Mr Doherty's questions on waste management. I support the Minister in bringing that forward in the agenda given and in the methodology with regard to waste management that is being used by the north-west cross-border group, and, indeed, we have been joined in that group by other councils in Northern Ireland.

With regard to water quality, it is well known that for some time there has been considerable ingress of pollution to the Erne system from the Republic of Ireland. Anglers have been suffering as a result of deterioration in water quality in the Erne system. Will the Minister assure us that when problems are identified, it will be the responsibility of the respective jurisdictions to deal with those problems financially?

Mr Foster:

We have been alerted to the problems of what may be floating from one jurisdiction into another, and we are concerned about it. Having lived in Fermanagh for a number of years, I have had personal experience of that. The important issue is that we work together in co-operation, under two different jurisdictions, but living as neighbours for each other's benefit. We will work on that aspect to ensure that water pollution does not occur on either side.

Mr Poots:

Was there any discussion surrounding the major accident hazards directive? This is an EU directive which applies to all EU countries, but it has not been fulfilled by some, including the Irish Republic, which was supposed to fulfil it one year ago. We share the same waters and air space, so if there were a major accident in the Irish Republic, it could have a significant impact on the environment in Northern Ireland. Did the Minister raise this matter with the Irish Government, or will he raise it in future meetings with them?

Mr Foster:

This again emphasises the necessity for good cross-border co-operation. It is all about living together in a neighbourly way, tackling our difficulties and issues of concern, and talking about them to ensure that they are completely eradicated. We will look into anything that is detrimental to Northern Ireland, and we will work in co-operation to ensure that situations like that do not occur.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

The time is up.

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


The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):

A LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tuairisc a thabhairt don Tionól faoin Chomhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas a tháinig le chéile mar chruinniú rannach i mBaile Átha Cliath Dé Máirt an 4 Iúil. Bhí gnóthaí a bhain le sábháilteacht bhia agus le comhoibriú i gcúrsaí sláinte faoi chaibidil ag an chruinniú.

I ndiaidh domh féin agus an tUasal Dermot Nesbitt bheith ainmnithe ag an Chéad-Aire agus an LeasChéad-Aire, d'fhreastail muid ar an chruinniú rannach den Chomhairle. Bhí an tUasal Mícheál Martin, an t-Aire a bhfuil cúram na Roinne Sláinte agus Leanaí air, agus a chomhghleacaí, an Dr Thomas Moffat, Aire Stáit, a bhfuil cúram Sábháilteacht Bia agus Daoine Scothaosta air sa Roinn, ag feidhmiú ar son Rialtas na hÉireann.

Tá an ráiteas seo, a cheadaigh an tUasal Dermot Nesbitt, á thabhairt ar a shon chomh maith.

Fuair an Chomhairle miontuairisc bhéil ón Dr Thomas Quigley, ón Bhord um Chur Chun Cinn Sábháilteacht Bia. Thug sé an t-eolas is déanaí do bhaill na Comhairle faoin struchtúr foirne atá molta don BCCCSB agus faoin obair atá ar siúl faoi láthair le plean corparáideach a sholáthar. Cheadaigh an Chomhairle, i bprionsabal, struchtúr bainistíochta, sracshocruithe foirne agus tús a chur le próiseas earcaíochta le bainisteoirí sinsearacha a aimsiú. Aontaíodh fosta go seolfaí an BCCCSB go foirmiúil i Meán Fómhair 2000. Ach tarlóidh seo i ndiaidh an chéad chruinnithe eile den Chomhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas atá le bheith ann i mí na Samhna 2000.

Phléigh an Chomhairle fosta an ról agus an déanamh a d'fhéadfadh bheith ann do Choiste Comhairleach an BCCCSB, a chuirfeadh comhairle eolaíoch agus theicniúil ar fáil don bhord.

Thug an Dr Quigley tuairisc ar an dul chun cinn a bhí déanta ag na grúpaí saineolaithe a bunaíodh le cúnamh speisialta a sholáthar i dtaobh sainfheidhmeanna an BCCCSB. Is é an ról atá ag na grúpaí saineolaithe seo ná comhairle a thabhairt don BCCCSB ar an dóigh le roinnt feidhmeanna de chuid an bhoird a chur i gcrích. Is é sin: cur chun cinn sábháilteacht bia; taighde ar shábháilteacht bhia; rabhaidh bhia a scaipeadh; faireachán a dhéanamh ar ghalair i mbia; comhoibriú agus ceangal idir saotharlanna a chur chun cinn; agus saoráidí éifeachtacha ó thaobh costais a fhorbairt le haghaidh tástála i saotharlanna.

Fuair an Chomhairle tuairisc fosta ar an mhéid a bhí curtha i gcrích den chlár oibre a cheadaigh sí taobh istigh de na réimsí sin a aimsíodh le haghaidh comhoibriú i gcúrsaí sláinte ag an chéad chruinniú. Ba iad sin: taighde ar ailse, cur chun cinn sláinte, seirbhísí taisme agus éigeandála, pleanáil i gcomhair olléigeandálaí agus comhoibriú maidir le trealamh ardteicneolaíochta. Dhírigh an Chomhairle a haird go áirithe ar an dul chun cinn luachmhar a bhí déanta ar thaighde ar ailse agus cur chun cinn sláinte. Aontaíodh go gcuirfí moltaí foirmiúla i roinnt de na réimsí seo faoi bhráid na Comhairle le go ndéanfaí cinneadh orthu ag an chéad chruinniú eile.

Chuir an Dr Jane Wilde, stiúrthóir na hInstitiúide Sláinte Poiblí, taispeántas i láthair na Comhairle ina ndearna sí cur síos gairid ar na príomhghníomhachtaí atá ar bun ag an institiúid. Mhol an Chomhairle an cuidiú tábhachtach a bhí an institiúid a thabhairt don earnáil sláinte poiblí ar an oileán.

D'aontaigh an Chomhairle ar théacs teachtaireachta a eisíodh i ndiaidh an chruinnithe. Cuireadh cóip den teachtaireacht i Leabharlann an Tionóil.

3.30 pm

I wish to report to the Assembly on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council held in sectoral format in Dublin on Tuesday 4 July. The meeting considered matters relating to food safety and co-operation on health issues.

Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Dermot Nesbitt and I attended the sectoral meeting of the council. Mr Micheál Martin, the Minister with responsibility for the Department of Health and Children, and his colleague, Dr Thomas Moffat, Minister of State with responsibility for food safety and older people at the Department, represented the Irish Government.

This statement has been approved by Mr Dermot Nesbitt and is also made on his behalf.

The council received a detailed oral report from Dr Thomas Quigley of the Food Safety Promotion Board (FSPB). Dr Quigley updated the council members on the proposed staffing structure of the FSPB and on the work currently underway to produce a corporate plan. The council approved, in principle, a management structure, outline staffing arrangements and the initiation of a recruitment process for the board's senior management. It was agreed that the Food Safety Promotion Board would formally be launched in September 2000. However, this will now take place following the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, which is scheduled for November.

The council also discussed the possible role and composition of the FSPB's advisory committee that will provide scientific and technical advice to the body.

Dr Quigley provided a progress report on the work of expert groups set up to provide special assistance on the specific functions of the board.

The role of the expert groups is to advise the FSPD on the implementation of a number of functions of the board, including the promotion of food safety, research into food safety, the communication of food alerts, surveillance of food-borne diseases, the promotion of scientific co-operation and linkages between laboratories and development of cost-effective facilities for laboratory testing.

The council also received a report on the progress on implementing the programme of work it had approved at its first meeting in respect of those areas identified for co-operation in the area of health. These were cancer research, health promotion, accident and emergency services, planning for major emergencies and co-operation on high-technology equipment. The council focused particularly on valuable progress being made on cancer research and health promotion. It was agreed that formal proposals for decision in a number of these areas would be put to the council at its next meeting.

The council received an oral presentation from Dr Jane Wilde, director of the Institute of Public Health, in which she outlined key activities being taken forward by the institute. The council paid tribute to the important contribution being made to the public health sector on the island by the institute. The council agreed the text of the communiqué that was issued following the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.

The Chairperson of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee (Dr Hendron):

I am very pleased that the Minister along with her Colleague, Mr Nesbitt, were able to attend the North/South Ministerial Council meeting on 4 July, and I welcome her statement. The Minister indicated that the Food Safety Promotion Board would be launched following the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, and I welcome that also.

With regard to this board, surveillance of food-borne disease is mentioned in the document. I am not being cynical about this, but recently on 'Good Morning, Ulster' reference was made to the increase in the number of rats in Dublin. The reason given was the tiger economy in the South, which has meant that many more restaurants have been opened. The BBC gave time to this, and I want to express concern for the public generally, not just for those in the Republic, but for the many thousands from here who travel there. I am not being facetious; they is a very important point.

With regard to the implementation of the programme of work and those areas identified for co-operation in the areas of health, the Minister mentioned cancer research, health promotion and high technology. The subject of cancer research has come up a number of times, and while too many people in Northern Ireland are dying of cancer, sometimes before they even get to see an oncologist, I welcome the research that is being established between the Belfast City Hospital, Dublin and Washington.

I appreciate that some work has been done on health promotion, but does the Minister agree that while there are budgetary constraints on all of these matters, prevention is better than cure? Money has gone to the Health Promotion Board, and health action zones will be playing a major part in disease prevention. It is important that the Minister and the House look at health promotion by whatever bodies that choose to be associated with it.

With regard to high technology, I have made reference before in the Chamber to positron emission tomography (PET). People are familiar with CAT scans and MRI scans, and the next technological development is the positron emission tomography. As I understand it, the Republic on its own can ill-afford this, as it is highly expensive equipment, and I do not think that we here can afford it either. However, on an all-Ireland basis, I am sure that it could be afforded. I know the Minister is aware of that, and I am sure she will give it her attention.

My last point, and perhaps I am being totally facetious, is with regard to the public health aspect that was referred to. I have nothing but admiration for the director of the institute, Dr Jane Wilde. The little point that I want to make is that I, as the Chairman of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, have received invitations to seminars or functions to do with that aspect, but they have always arrived at least one to two weeks after the event has taken place. I do not expect the Minister to resolve that; I will work on it myself.

Ms de Brún:

I was waiting for the questions.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I was very conscious of that myself, but the Member wondered if the Minister would agree - which, in a sense, is a question.

Dr Hendron:

It is a question regarding health promotion.

Ms de Brún:

I absolutely agree on the question of surveillance of food-borne disease. One of the reasons why we outlined that as a priority is that such diseases know no boundaries or borders, and co-operation on the matter is absolutely essential.

On health promotion, I note that Dr Hendron talked about the financial constraints. I would love to be able to reassure him that some of our actions in undertaking this work have been to overcome those constraints in different parts of the island.

On the question of health promotion, one major example is in the area of folic acid. We know that taking folic acid prior to conception and during early pregnancy can significantly reduce the risk of difficulties. Throughout Ireland the rates of spina bifida and other neural tube defects are unacceptably high. One very early and practical step in this ongoing work in sharing information and resources will be the development of a campaign to promote the importance of folic acid when planning a pregnancy.

Materials already developed here by the Health Promotion Agency have been shared with the Department of Health and Children to facilitate the development of a public information campaign. In return for this assistance, the Department of Health and Children will meet the costs of running television advertising on UTV as well as on RTE. That will ensure that messages about the importance of folic acid reach target audiences across the island, and it will also address the concerns that the Member has expressed about costs and the best use of limited resources. That shows how this kind of co-operation can be used to overcome these problems.

On the work being undertaken by the Institute of Public Health, one area that will be looked at is the development of information that will lead to better cross-sectoral working. The Member mentioned the health action zones. We will be able to ensure that the kind of cross-sectoral working and the guidance that is needed will be in place for those.

He also mentioned high-technology equipment, and I know that that is an area that he is particularly concerned about. I am very pleased to be able to say that having worked with colleagues in Dublin, we have identified outline objectives for a procurement system, and these effectively will be the terms of reference for a project team. They will include sharing equipment and facilities, telemedicine, information and communications technology and sharing assessments in audit and policy development.

Positron emission tomography, mentioned by the Member, was identified as an area with scope for co-operation and collaboration. Others are the combining of equipment and other programmes to secure better bulk purchase discounts and to encourage keener pricing, building on existing networks, developing shared protocols in relation to medical physics and sharing information about planned capital projects.

There is a whole range.

3.45 pm

One of the benefits of mutual working is to ensure the best possible opportunities for the purchase of high-technology equipment and the best possible use of it.

Mrs Carson:

I noted with great interest the paragraph in the Minister's statement which said that the council also discussed the possible role and composition of the Food Safety Promotion Board's advisory committee - that it will provide scientific and technical advice to the body. It was discussed, and the composition was discussed. I ask the Minister if she will give the Assembly the assurance that any appointees from Northern Ireland will be representative of its population and make-up and well qualified. I also ask her not to proceed with these appointments without any consultation or consideration by the Assembly or the Health Committee as she did when she made the appointments to the hospitals acute review group.

Ms de Brún:

The Food Safety Promotion Board's governing legislation provides for an advisory committee to include scientific experts and representatives of broader food safety interests. Ministers feel that the committee has an important role to play in clarifying scientific advice in the development of research strategy, and, therefore, membership of the committee should reflect a range of interests and disciplines relevant to the function of the Food Safety Promotion Board, such as public health, veterinary science, environmental health and nutrition. Because this is to be an expert committee, all of these people will be appointed because of their expertise and the contribution they can make towards providing advice, as I have said in my statement about the Food Safety Promotion Board.

I notice that the Member referred to the make-up of the membership of a review group which I recently announced. I hope that there was no suggestion that there is any question mark over the integrity, knowledge or expertise of any individual on that group. I am content that the membership I have chosen for the group will have the necessary knowledge and expertise and that they will be able to provide me with the objective expert advice that I need. I know that many, if not all of the group are actively engaged in one way or another in promoting and working across a broad range of interests. Certainly the local members are working in a capacity that allows them to work for the whole community. If the Member has any suggestion that there is a question mark over the integrity, knowledge or expertise of any individual, I hope she will bring that to me. I have not heard any such suggestion.

Mrs Carson:

I do not think my question was fully answered, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was querying the fact that it was appointed without prior consultation and consideration. I hope that some group, other than the Minister, will be consulted in advance and have the opportunity to give consideration to this.

Ms de Brún:

The Executive Committee here will approve the membership of the advisory committee.

Mr Hay:

Is the Minister aware of the serious childcare situation that is developing in the western board area, especially in my constituency of Foyle? Social workers are, at present, debating whether to go on strike as a result of a serious lack of resources.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Are you coming to something, Mr Hay?

Mr Hay:

Yes, I am coming to something. It takes me a while building up to it, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I will come to it. I want to say bluntly to the Minister that this situation in respect of childcare, especially in my area, is causing deep concern. I will give one example -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

This session is supposed to be about North/South matters. You seem to be concentrating on something else.

Mr Hay:

I think I will be able to elaborate the question. A Member is on her feet, and I wish you would rule on that, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is the same person who was continually on her feet when someone else was responsible for health in Northern Ireland and was very critical of that particular Minister.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Get to the point.

Mr Hay:

I will try to get to the point. Is the Minister aware of a particular home in Londonderry - in my own Foyle constituency - named Harvern House, where there are units of 20 beds, and children are sleeping on the floor? I want to ask her -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I am sorry, but I am going to have to rule against you.

Mr Hay:

This is a health issue. I want to put a question directly to the Minister.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Please sit down. We have been running these questions and answers quite clearly, quite intelligently and quite usefully for two hours now. You have been invited three times to tell me - to tell all of us - what this has to do with the North/South Ministerial Council meeting in July of this year. You have not yet done so, and unless you can do so now, I will have to move to the next question.

Mr Hay:

This is a health issue. Following that council meeting, what is the Minister prepared to do to look at the serious problem of childcare in my constituency where social workers are about to go on strike because of the lack of resources?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I cannot allow this to proceed.

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I see from the Minister's statement that the North/South Ministerial Council received a report from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland. Where does the work of the institute fit in to the North/South Ministerial Council and the public health strategy that the Executive listed as a key priority in its agenda for Government?

Ms De Brún:

I dtús báire, cé nár bunaíodh an institiúid sláinte poiblí faoin Chomhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas, is cinnte go bhfuil sé ceart agus cóir go rachadh obair na hinstitiúide ar aghaidh anois taobh istigh de réim na Comhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas.

Although the institute was not established under the terms of the agreement or as part of the North/South Ministerial Council, it is wholly appropriate that its work programme will now be taken forward under the oversight of the North/South Ministerial Council. The institute is funded by the two Health Departments. The budget for this year is £425,000 sterling, of which my Department will contribute £140,000. It is quite appropriate that that work will now be taken forward under the oversight of the North/South Ministerial Council.

As to where it fits into the public health strategy, Members will be aware that the Executive is taking forward a new public health strategy. We have put advertisements in the local newspapers around the whole question of a new public health strategy and have invited members of the public to bring forward their views on key issues, problems and priorities that need to be addressed. I would like to take this opportunity to extend that invitation to Members.

The work of the institute is based around five main themes. These are themes that we have seen in the early days of putting together the public health strategy and the ministerial group on public health and some of the early consultation work which they have done. These are themes that are coming up again in that format. Tackling inequalities is, of course, a central theme. We are tackling inequalities in health and strengthening partnerships for health. This came up earlier when Dr Hendron asked how the work of the institute would lead to better cross-sectoral working in partnerships in improving the health of the population.

Developing international collaboration is another theme, as are public health information, surveillance and capacity building. These are the five themes in the institute's work and are major issues that have arisen in our early efforts to develop the public health strategy.

The report of the Institute of Public Health on the social determinants of health in Ireland will help to build a platform for the development of a future programme. That will be of great benefit to the Executive as we bring forward the public health strategy in a cross-departmental way.

The institute is holding a seminar on public health in Europe, aimed at establishing priorities for further work in the context of the developing European public health programme. It is also carrying out an evaluation of public health on both sides of the border as a preliminary step in a wider programme of North/South public health studies.

That will be of great benefit to us as we carry forward what the Executive has recognised and accepted as a priority area in the Programme for Government.

Mr Beggs:

In her statement, the Minister says that the council also received a progress report on the implementation of the work programme approved at its first meeting. Among the areas listed were accident and emergency services and planning for major emergencies. I am very curious as to what was said about these issues at the council meeting. The Minister has said very little on these issues, and the Republic of Ireland is among six EU countries that the Commission is taking to the European Court of Justice for non-respect of obligations under the major accidents hazard directive. Why did the Minister not tell us that the Republic of Ireland has failed to meet its European obligations in those areas? Why has she not advised us of that, so that the accident and emergency situation for anyone in Northern Ireland who may be caught up in an accident in the border region could be improved?


<< Prev / Next >>