Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 11 September 2000 (continued)
Ms de Brún:
Co-operation on emergency planning has been taking place for a number of years, principally between local hospitals, such as Altnagelvin, in Derry, and Letterkenny Hospital; Daisy Hill in Newry and Louth County Hospital in Dundalk and Erne Hospital in Enniskillen and Sligo Hospital. That should address the Member's concerns about anybody's being caught up in an accident or in a major emergency in the border area. At present, there is no question of any threat to our ability to co-operate in tackling major accidents or emergencies.
There is also co-operation on training. Accident and emergency consultants already operate cross-border courses. There is clear potential for further co-operation, but today I have noticed a tendency among some Members to use questions to try to point out that everything in the South of Ireland is wrong, and that there is nothing wrong here. I hope the Member's question is not posed from that perspective and that he is not trying to make a political point, rather than posing a reasoned question.
Co-operation is clearly to everyone's benefit. It is particularly suited to North/South linkages because of geographical proximity and the convenience of communication. As the Member said, we want to ensure that adjacent or specialist facilities can relieve the pressure on health services either side of the border by providing an initial response.
We intend to set up a small group representing all interests and to draw up clear protocols that can be brought into immediate effect when an emergency occurs. That will ensure the best and fastest response to those affected.
I very much welcome the coming together of both parts of the island to provide good health service. I certainly welcome the presence of Dr Thomas Moffat, Minister of State in the South with responsibility for food safety and older people. That is a very interesting title. Food safety is, of course, of vital importance, and I welcome the proposal to launch the Food Safety Promotion Board after the November North/South Ministerial Council meeting.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Are you coming to your question, Mr McCarthy?
I have been sitting here all afternoon, and I have got to say that the length of questions and answers has bored me to tears, so I do beg your indulgence - [Interruption] Let me finish. I am deeply disappointed that nothing in the statement refers to the health of older people. I am sure the people in the North have exactly the same problems as the people in the South. [Interruption] At least older people in the South have free travel and free TV, which we have not, to our shame.
Can the Minister assure this House that the necessary investment for all aspects of cancer research will be made available both in the North and in the South? In relation to emergency services cross-border, what progress has been made with regard to the provision of an air ambulance for the whole island?
Ms de Brún:
Research into the air ambulance question is one of the aspects on which officials are working.
In terms of cancer services, particularly in research, we ought to recognise that the existing co-operation, particularly the setting-up of the tripartite arrangements between ourselves, the whole island of Ireland and the United States has allowed us to work with the best in the field. That has brought us enormous benefits. The work that develops will very clearly bring the necessary improvements to our cancer services and ensure that the development of cancer research here is carried out in a way that makes best use, not only of the kind of scope that is allowed for in an all-island development, but also the particular benefits that working with the National Cancer Institute has brought.
The Minister will be aware of the lengthy and vigorous discussions in the area of cross- border co-operation during the negotiations. She will also be aware that there are - and she has listed many already - a number of areas that were in existence beforehand and are there for fully practical reasons. Did the Minister explain to the North/South Ministerial Council why she, in the references for the new task force looking at acute hospitals, has given Dr Maurice Hayes the remit to look specifically at increased cross-border co-operation in acute hospitals? Is this perhaps not a matter for further negotiation to add to the comprehensive list here? Is it not a disrespect to the North/South Ministerial Council that she did not try to set this up officially, rather than through what appears to be a back door with Dr Maurice Hayes?
Ms de Brún:
There are two separate points here. It was agreed during the negotiations that ongoing work on accident and emergency services would come specifically under the North/South Ministerial Council. That part would have been discussed at the council. Key officials and professionals on this have met and identified a range of potential North/South linkages of accident and emergency hospital services, and the Member will be glad to know that these areas should form the basis of an interdepartmental scoping study.
I expect that the scoping paper, which we will have in time for the next Ministerial Council meeting, will identify a number of areas in which co-operation in accident and emergency services can be strengthened - areas such as ambulance services, the sharing of emergency admissions, agreeing referral protocols, agreeing arrangements for transferring patients needing more specialised services, developing proposals for cost sharing and clarifying the legal frameworks for staff treating patients.
Apart from the work specifically mentioned and being done in the North/South Ministerial Council, there is other work that had already been set up or that continues naturally in the course of work between the two Departments. A great deal of work goes on as part of the general working together, for example, between the health boards, and ongoing work that is shared - not in accident and emergency, but in respect of other hospital services - has been, to date, on the basis of co-operation or buying-in between health boards. It was felt that if we were reviewing acute hospital services here, it would be useful for that group to be able to look at and build on that existing work. That is why this does not come specifically under the North/South Ministerial Council.
I can offer the assurance that there is no question of anything's being done by the back door. Any work arising from the deliberations of this review group will go to the Executive Committee and to the public for consultation, and any proposals brought forward by me will be for the benefit of the people.
I would also like to point out that one of the Members from Mr McFarland's party specifically lobbied me - I will not say who - but that Member specifically lobbied me. He suggested that in taking forward any work on the review of acute hospital services, we needed to look at the possibility of co-operation between a named hospital in his constituency and a named hospital on the other side of the border.
My question relates to something that the Minister referred to as an interdepartmental scoping study. I am interested in knowing to what extent these North/South Ministerial Council meetings lend themselves to multidepartmental scoping studies. We heard earlier from the Minister of Education about the group set up to look at the underachievement of children. We know from previous research that this also has an impact upon what the Minister of the Environment might want to say about the background in which those children are being reared and what the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety might have to say about existing inequalities. I would like the Minister to address the extent to which these council meetings enable that to happen.
Secondly, I would like to agree with what Mr McCarthy said about the health promotion needs of older people. Does the Minister not find it disappointing that on a North/South or a British-Irish basis, Northern Ireland is the only region to be without a centre for dementia. Given the extent of that problem in Northern Ireland, would it not be useful if, in the public health and health promotion areas of her work, the Minister were to pay some attention to setting up a centre that could link North and South and British and Irish?
Ms de Brún:
With regard to older people I gave general responses about the kind of work that is being done. Because of time constraints I did not go into the detail about the age groups that the measures I am proposing would affect. I will look at the Member's specific proposal, although it would not have come in under the specific agenda items to date.
I welcome suggestions from Members and invite other Members to suggest topics for future North/South Ministerial Council meetings in sectoral format.
The Member will know, having been part, as Alan McFarland said, of the lengthy discussions on the format of the North/South Ministerial Council meetings, that there is scope for cross-sectoral meetings. In the last meeting I had, for example, where we discussed health promotion - and on which I now report - both Departments recognised the dangers of smoking to health and were concerned at trends showing increases in smoking, particularly among young girls. We therefore plan to share information on this issue with a view to developing a school-based campaign aimed at teenage girls. Obviously, I have spoken to my Colleague, Martin McGuinness, the Minister of Education, about this. The matter will be taken forward with other Departments, and there will be other examples.
I refer the Minister to the last three pages of her statement and ask her how much public money has been wasted in translating and reproducing her statement in Irish. Given the fact that all Assembly Members speak English and that even her Colleague, the Minister of Education, felt it unnecessary to reproduce his statement in Irish, is this not a superfluous political exercise?
Ms de Brún:
I note that Members present were part of a group that put together the Standing Orders of the Assembly. They agreed that Members could speak in the language of their choice. Why they agreed to that if they are going to object every time that a Member avails of the opportunity to use that right, I do not understand. There is no question of the provision of health and social services or the work of my Department or others as a concept's being expressed in one language alone. Health and social services are provided for a large community that is varied in terms of community background, social class, need and language. A modern Health Service must be able to cater for that.
I was invited to speak at a conference at the weekend at which an eminent international speaker pointed out that there may be far greater obligations upon us in relation to the use of Irish than we at present fulfil. It is not a waste of public money or time. However, given the fact that Members' parties agreed that I should have this right, the constant repetition of this question may, indeed, be wasteful.
Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the statement made by the Minister on the last North/South Council Meeting. I also welcome the fact that cancer and cancer research are identified as areas for co-operation. I would like to point out, however, that coronary heart disease is another major killer of people in Ireland. Is there any scope for tackling this on an all-Ireland basis through the North/South Ministerial Council? Go raibh maith agat.
Ms de Brún:
Bhí caibidil ann idir an dá Roinn faoi na tosaíochtaí ó thaobh cur cinn sláinte. Is cinnte go raibh an t-ábhar a luaigh an Teachta Tionóil - tinneas croí - ina thosaíocht. Is ábhar buartha go bhfuil minicíocht thinneas croí doghlactha ard sa dá chuid den oileán. Dá thairbhe sin, is cinnte go mbeadh sé ina thosaíocht mar ábhar comhoibrithe taobh istigh den Chomhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas.
Discussion between the two Departments has led to the identification of shared priorities for health promotion. Ms Ramsey has made a point about heart disease, and it is very clear that this area will be a priority.
Tackling the high rate of coronary heart disease across Ireland is a priority; it is unacceptably high in both parts of the island. Clearly that is an area that can and will be taken forward. We hope to support that work with joint public information initiatives in areas such as smoking and diet and exercise. I have dealt with Prof McWilliams' question on smoking and how we hope to take that forward.
On tobacco control, we are closely monitoring and discussing the proposals, both in Dublin and London, to tighten up issues such as smoking in public places, tobacco advertising and sales of cigarettes to young people. I will be looking at that very carefully.
In tackling heart disease, we hope to embark on a longitudinal study of heart health that would inform both Departments on the effects of current lifestyles on heart disease and help us identify future trends. Members talked earlier about whether resources are being wasted. This is a clear example of how co-operation on health promotion makes sound sense. From a health perspective the common problems and priorities and the similarity in population profile mean there is a mutual benefit to be derived from collaboration. From a value-for-money perspective there are obvious economies of scale in joint public information campaigns, training sessions and research projects. Clearly, this is an issue to be tackled - one where we can, and will, work together.
Overall, the proposed work programme reflects existing health promotion priorities on both sides of the border and the potential benefit to be gained from tackling these together, rather than pursuing them in isolation.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The time is up.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
I wish to report on the second meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in its trade and business development sectoral format, held on Friday 30 June.
Following a nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Dr Sean Farren and I attended the sectoral meeting of the council. Ms Mary Harney TD, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, represented the Irish Government. This report has been approved by Dr Farren and is also made on his behalf.
I wish to refer to two earlier interventions by Mr S Wilson and Rev Dr William McCrea, neither of whom is now in the Chamber. These reports are approved and made on behalf of both Ministers as part of the checks and balances of the system. It is a cornerstone of the arrangements and is absolutely vital.
Secondly, the reason that there are a number of these statements today is that we are under an obligation to report to this House at the first available opportunity after the meeting. I dare say there would be complaints if we did not do so.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
The council received a verbal report from Mr Liam Nellis, interim chief executive of the body, on the progress to date in taking forward the work of the body. He reported on progress in relation to studies on an equity investment fund, graduate placement programmes, testing and analytical services, standards certification and accreditation programmes. Mr Nellis also reported on arrangements to establish the body's headquarters in Newry.
The council approved a paper outlining the activities of the body for the year 2000 and the associated budget. The council approved codes of conduct for staff and board members of the body. The council noted progress to date on the recruitment of a chief executive for the body. The council agreed that its next meeting in this sectoral format would take place in Northern Ireland in October. The council agreed the text of a communiqué, which was issued following the meeting. A copy has been placed in the Assembly Library.
The Chairperson of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee (Mr P Doherty):
I welcome the statement from the Minister. Can the Minister elaborate on the details of the body's headquarters in Newry and outline the activities of the body for the year 2000, its budget the code of conduct for the staff, board and members of the body? I would like to see a bit more detail being given to the House today.
Sir Reg Empey:
When the North/South bodies were agreed the location of the headquarters of the various bodies were an integral part of that agreement. In this case the decision was that the body's headquarters would be in Newry. I am pleased to say that progress has been made. I believe that a site has been identified at the gasworks in Newry, and progress is being made on preparing that for occupation, which I hope will take place shortly.
It was also an integral part of the agreement that all these organisations would have codes of conduct for their boards and staff. One of the duties of the North/South Ministerial Council is to approve both of those codes of conduct. That work was transacted at the North/South Ministerial Council at the end of June, and codes of conduct were approved. If they are not already available to the Member in the Assembly Library, I will undertake to ensure that they are provided.
The activities of the trade body are set out in the legislation - part of the agreement identified the agenda that it would work to. However, the agenda is much larger than the current work programme, because it is impossible to do everything at once. There are four key areas on which the body has to report soon. Those areas are a North/South equity investment fund; the development of graduate and other placement programmes; the carrying out of a range of testing services for industry; and the certification programmes - that is the implementation of standards development and certification on a North/South basis.
The business of the body when it meets next month will be to receive reports on those four areas, as they were time-limited in the agreement. I understand that work has been completed on all four, and Ms Harney, Dr Farren and I are expecting to receive a report on those areas when we meet in October. The meeting will take place in Northern Ireland, and we will be in a position to report to the Assembly immediately thereafter.
I welcome the statement by the Minister. I applaud the efforts of the Minster and Sean Farren to provide joined-up Government. Both have realised the linkages between their departmental responsibilities. That is very much outlined in the four key areas of study. Will the Minister update the Assembly as soon as possible after his October meeting on the progress that has been made in these areas?
In the communiqué, reference was made to an initiative on e-commerce. Can the Minister update us on what is happening and say whether or not the issue of tendering and public procurement is part of that initiative?
Sir Reg Empey:
Yes. I can give the Member an undertaking that immediately the opportunity presents itself after the October meeting, we will be making a report here. I hope to be in a position to give the Member an indication of the contents of the reports on the four areas of activity and on our response. I have not yet had an opportunity to see them. I do not know whether we will be able to agree them or not, but we will be in a position to make a factual report as soon as we have seen the material and taken decisions on it.
With regard to e-commerce, the trade and business development body held a seminar in Fermanagh in June this year, which was its first major exercise. It attracted an audience of 60 key business people, 30 from each side of the border, and a number of American visitors were invited - people who had succeeded on the Internet as young companies who had started off in a variety of different areas of activity. They came to give their testimony, as it were, to the invited business people from both sides of the border.
I attended the seminar briefly for lunch and met the delegates. I understand that officials described the day as being highly successful, and those people whom I spoke to said that they had been immensely impressed by the information they received from people who had succeeded in taking a very simple idea and translating it on to the Internet. One particular person created tremendous wealth for himself and his company as a result. Others were at different stages of development. It proved to different companies what was achievable by pursuing this path, and that was one of the exercises undertaken by the body. It was its first major public move. There are others planned for later in the autumn, but I hope to elaborate more fully on that when we get to the next report.
As far as public procurement is concerned, trade and supply chains make up a key area of activity for this body. I have to say that this is one of the areas which, from the trade point of view, I am most anxious to pursue, because it will provide the quickest way of improving trade.
As the Member may be aware, we have clearly been making progress in the Republic of Ireland market in the last five or six years. It has grown very considerably. We are experiencing difficulties right now because of the currency differential which is running at about 29%, and this is causing problems. Nevertheless, the level of trade is still improving, albeit not at the rate that it was a couple of years ago.
Part of our objective in developing supply chains is to make companies aware of what may be available around the corner and to reduce the length of supply lines, thereby reducing the necessity to hold stock and subsequently improving the efficiency and the cost base of businesses.
European regulations have a major role to play in public procurement, because, as the House will know, major public procurements have to be advertised in the 'European Journal'. This does not take away from the fact that one of the things that has not been happening on a sufficient scale is the level of cross-border trade. While it has been growing in recent years, it is still a very small percentage of the total amount of trade in both jurisdictions. The degree to which it is able to make an impact in this area is something on which the success of this body will be measured.
I very much welcome the statement by the Minister. I share many interests with him such as the enterprise, trade and investment agenda and the issues contained therein. Would it be possible to have the North/South Ministerial Council move forward more aggressively on the tourism agenda? We are told that our gross domestic product from tourism here is around 2% and that the aim is to increase this to 6% or 7% - perhaps 5% in the meantime. This is one of the benefits which could arise from a North/South agenda. Would it be possible to report on progress with the development of the special tourism company which was to be set up to work that agenda? Would it also be possible to have a statement at some stage in the not-too-distant future?
Furthermore, in the wider picture of inward investment I would like to know how much constructive co-operation is taking place between the IDB and the IDA in the South and how that co-operation might be developed in a way that specifically benefits inward investment in Northern Ireland.
Sir Reg Empey:
There is a variety of issues there, not all of which are the direct responsibility of the trade and business development body. The North/South Ministerial Council has not yet met to establish the tourism company, but that will, I hope, happen next month. I am meeting Dr McDaid tomorrow. The speed at which we can establish the company will depend on a number of issues being finalised tomorrow. I hope to be in a position to bring proposals to the Executive next month, and we are aiming to have the body established then.
Investment is not part of the remit of the trade and business development body, however co-operation clearly is. For the information of Members, the IDB and the IDA met in May this year, and a press release was issued on 15 May. They are investigating which areas could benefit from co-operation. Clearly they already co-operate with other inward investment organisations throughout the United Kingdom, and this ensures that they are not used and abused by potential inward investors who may try to create a Dutch auction between them, whereby people go around the various organisations trying to bid up their projects. This mechanism is already in place. We have concordats with Scotland and Wales specifically to ensure that there is no exploitation of our position there, and there are similar informal arrangements with the IDA.
A working group was formed following the meeting in May to look, on a pilot basis, at marketing in the north- west area. The councils in Londonderry, Limavady and Strabane, as well as Donegal County Council, cover this area. Those four local authority areas are being looked at.
The group consists of executives from both the IDB and the IDA and works in consultation with the north-west cross-border group and Derry Investment Initiative. Objectives include the establishment of a joint marketing database and the co-ordinating of the handling of visits. These are elementary things that can be done. A similar grouping exists in the area of tourism, and they are looking at that as a pilot project.
An example of this type of co-operation in practice is a forthcoming visit, hosted by the IDB, by members of the Japanese Software Association. The group will spend a significant amount of time in Londonderry and will also visit Letterkenny. This pilot project is ongoing. The group has not yet produced a report - it met for the only time in May. I discussed the matter with the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce last week. They are interested in the project and obviously feel that the region as a whole may add up to more than the sum of its constituent parts, and they are very enthusiastic about pursuing these matters. I will report to the House when we know the outcome.
My question relates to the equity investment fund. The North/South trade and business development body is currently evaluating the necessity of having such a fund. There are already a number of private- and publicly-funded venture capital funds operating in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister confirm that the remit of the research to evaluate a possible future equity investment fund will seek to establish whether there is a necessity for a further source of venture capital funding on a North/South basis? Would further provision crowd out the existing provision?
Sir Reg Empey:
The genesis of this item on the agenda dates back two years to the negotiations that went on to establish these bodies. The specific remit was that the body would bring forth proposals on the development of a North/South equity investment fund programme. This was to take account of the effectiveness of the existing range of equity and fund provision, North and South, for consideration and decision by the North/South Ministerial Council.
Since that agreement was reached, the market has changed. There are more people in the market; the nature of the venture capital market has changed, and there is a somewhat greater range of products available. The study will establish whether there are gaps in the market and whether a niche market exists. It is one of the key areas that will be brought forward for decision in October. I have not seen the final report, but we will have to ensure that whatever is proposed is complementary to the existing range of products and will not simply replace it or run in parallel with it.
There are complaints, from time to time, that the venture capital industry is offering loans on far too great a scale and which are beyond some of the smaller companies. However, the market has improved, and there is a range of facilities. The biggest problem is not so much the lack of venture capital but the lack of projects for venture capital. There is a reluctance and resistance in our business community to participate and benefit from venture capital. There is a resistance to the idea of letting go of part of the company to venture capital investors. People think it is their own, and they want to hold on to it. The culture of venture capital has not got through to business here.
If one looks at what is happening in the United States of America and, to a growing extent, in the Republic, one will see that there is more enthusiasm for venture capital. That is how much of the small business sector in the United States has progressed - people have been prepared to take the view that half a loaf is better than no bread. That culture has not yet developed here. It is not so much the supply side that is the problem; it is the demand side.
I understand the point that the Member is making, and we would not be serving anybody well if we accepted a venture capital fund that merely duplicated what was already available in the commercial sector. I look forward to the report, and I hope that it is able to establish that there may be niche markets, and address, in particular, the tailoring of product, especially for the small-and medium-sized enterprises sector, that would fill a gap that already exists in the market. That remains to be determined, and I may be in a position next month to make further comments in that regard.
Any questions that I wanted to ask have already been covered.
The content of my question was referred to by Dr Birnie. However, I would like to pursue it with the Minister. I welcome the statement the Minister has made. The equity investment fund has potential, and I would like the North/South body to pursue it so that, in particular, graduates coming out of the universities who may have good research ideas on developing new products can be encouraged. I ask the Minister to ensure that the existing vested interests - investment bodies and big banks - do not curtail this investment fund.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am surprised that the hon Member did not ask me if we were going to establish an equity investment fund specifically for West Tyrone. He protected me from that, but I know that that is what he really meant. [Laughter] The fact remains that there is an issue with regard to the development of graduate and other placement programmes. I know that Dr Farren has very strong views on this matter and is actively pursuing it from his own departmental point of view. I assure the Member that vested interests, whether in the banking sector or in others, will not be permitted to block or influence this. We are not interested in replacing what banks are doing. The problem is that many of us regard much of what the banks do in regard to development as lacking in imagination, particularly in relation to small-and medium-sized enterprises. Those of us who have been studying the American situation - and I include our experiences last month - were very impressed that banks in the United States of America are under an obligation to assist their communities. Indeed, they are key players in economic development at the sharp end of taking risks.
There is no point in lending to a sure bet; anybody can do that. There has to be a degree of imagination and risk. Some new thinking has to be introduced. There is no point in putting the umbrella out when the sun is shining and taking it away when the rain begins. Many small businesses, and particularly individuals, may not have a sufficiently strong credit rating due to the fact that they have not been able to get on to the ladder in the first place.
I am hoping that the report will point out some ways in which people in those circumstances can benefit. The aspire programme already deals with micro-lending, but we are talking about something a little further up the line where people who have ideas are not thwarted through lack of funding. I know that the problem may often be that the public sector grant-giving facilities, loan facilities and commercial banking facilities through the clearing banks leave out a significant sector of the potential market, and I hope that we will be able to find a way of filling that particular gap - even in west Tyrone - in order to avoid that's occurring.
Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's report. What sort of consultation and input will we have in relation to the South's economic development strategy, which will be coming out in a year's time, in terms of the joint strategies? Through that and other work to be done by the North/South Ministerial Council how can we target and tackle areas of underinvestment, particularly in rural areas in respect of rural development and agri-schemes? Can the Minister say something about the recruitment of the executive officer?
Sir Reg Empey:
The Member is getting a number of points in here. The Republic may well be developing a new strategy, although, obviously, we will not have an input into that. However, the Member can have an input to the strategy that the trade and business development body comes up with, not only when reports come before the House and he has the opportunity to ask questions, but also at Committee level.
Members of the trade and business development body - or any other implementation body - can be invited to attend Committee meetings of this House. The policy and proposals of those bodies can be scrutinised by Assembly Committees, and individuals, including those from the trade and business development body, when invited, are required to attend and put across their positions.
There is also the possibility that whenever we are debating, on an annual basis, budgetary or other matters, the House as a whole will have the opportunity to contribute and make suggestions. I must point out to the hon Member that the Committee structure here affords a much greater opportunity to get into a great deal more detail than might be possible in a question-and-answer session such as this.
With regard to the appointment of the executive officer, the consultants Deloitte & Touche were appointed to assist the trade and business development body with the recruitment process. Advertisements have appeared, and a panel consisting of two directors of the company, together with an independent representative, will have been sitting and shortlisting. I am hoping that a recommendation may be available for us next month and that we would then be in a position to make an appointment. That is, of course, one of the functions of the North/South Ministerial Council. I will, of course, bring any outworkings of that to the House as soon as possible.
I also welcome the good work of the Minister and his Colleague and Minister, Seán Farren. Having listened to the statements, I have been struck by the good, positive message that we must be sending out to our community as we move towards the end of business today, particularly since this work is coupled with the work which has already begun on the Programme of Government. We should take great heart that the House and the Executive are getting down to business and beginning to provide what our community wants.
The verbal account from Liam Nellis reported progress on a number of things. I was particularly interested in the graduate placement programme. Will the Minister give us more information on that and tell us how it may assist in promoting the objectives of the trade and business development body?
Sir Reg Empey:
The proceedings today have shown that a great deal of work is going on. No mention has been made, however, about the co-operation that goes on daily with Ministers from Whitehall and other places and through meetings of the joint Ministerial Council. This work and co-operation is going on constantly. There was criticism that the Assembly has met only on a certain number of days, but, of course, no mention was made of the fact that the Committees of the House have been meeting frequently. Some of them, including the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, met during the recess. Those hours of Committee work seem to have been conveniently forgotten. There are still some people out there who think that this is just a cut-down version of Parliament and that it works in exactly the same way as Westminster, but it does not. It is going to take a little time for this to filter through and for the general public to realise that work in the Chamber is only one part of what Members have to do.
Graduate and other placement programmes on a North/South basis are designed to perform the same function as the explorers programme for which my Department has responsibility. This is a programme which places graduates in work somewhere in North America or Europe to give them experience.
While I have not yet seen the report - and this may be an area in which Dr Farren has more expertise - it is, nevertheless, the objective to use best practice to exchange ideas, to network and to give people the experience of working outside their home environment. At times we have a very parochial attitude, and people sometimes will not work on the other side of the road. We even have difficulty getting people to move around in this city. In some cases, there is justification for that, but sometimes there is just too parochial an approach. Placement programmes are not new, but they need to be developed. For example, with regard to tourism and hotel management, we are running at only about one third of what our level of activity should be.
Consequently, by definition, people in the Republic who have an industry running at about 6% of GDP, or slightly greater, have a more sophisticated industry than ours, and lessons could be learned there. That is only one example. The general principle is to give people an opportunity to go into a different environment to gain knowledge and expertise and to bring that back to enrich our economic ability to do well. Our biggest economic asset is our people.
Therefore, the greater the skills, experience, expertise and knowledge that they have in their subject - be it in e-commerce or hotels - the greater the benefit to the economy of Northern Ireland. There are also things that we can teach in Northern Ireland - it would not be one-way traffic. The idea is to have a scheme akin to an exchange programme where people would experience working in a different jurisdiction. We have companies that can teach others from outside. That is the general idea. It is a sensible one, and I can see only benefit from it. I hope to be in a better position next month to give a fuller and more detailed report. By that time I will have received a report from Mr Nellis on the progress of his work programme.
The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition welcomes the North/South co-operation in these areas. The Minister referred to forthcoming issues on the agenda. He mentioned job creation and job promotion in the areas of e-commerce, and so on. However, does the safeguarding of jobs come into that jurisdiction in the context of North/South co-operation. I have grave concerns about the future of Harland and Wolff. On a North/South basis there is speculation in the press about wind turbines being built for renewable energy in the South. This would be very valuable in terms of protecting and safeguarding tens of hundreds of jobs at Belfast shipyard. What does the Minister think can be done, whether in a North/South context or in a Northern Ireland context, to protect the jobs at Harland and Wolff?
Sir Reg Empey:
I must compliment the Member on her ingenuity in working that subject into a question on this issue. My intention was to make a statement this afternoon about the situation at Harland and Wolff. However, in the absence of a determination on the arbitration and, therefore, the company's response to it, I have had to withdraw that application, because it would be premature.
We have to understand what the trade and business development body is doing. There is no need to work through it with regard to those things that the Member has been talking about - safeguarding jobs, and so on. If an issue of an economic nature comes up that Ms Harney and myself have a joint interest in, I would have no hesitation in contacting her, and I have done so in the past.
The subject of wind turbines is an energy issue. I had discussions with Mrs O'Rourke, the Minister for Public Enterprise, on Friday. We discussed a whole range of energy matters including renewables, but those things are some way down the track. A pilot project into the potential for wind energy on the west coast of the Republic of Ireland has been commissioned following a report by Kirk McClure Morton. There is a pilot scheme going on there, and the first licence is about to be issued. However, it will be some time before the outworking of that would have any meaningful application for Harland and Wolff.
As I said, this is not necessarily relevant to my statement, but the Member knows that I have spent a great deal of time dealing with this company. I also had the support of my Colleagues, Sean Farren and Mark Durkan - indeed, of the entire Executive - in preparing responses in the event of the news that is widely canvassed and anticipated. However, I would prefer to wait until we know the outcome of the arbitration and the company's reaction to it before making public comment. Had that information been available to me today I would have made a statement, but I may have to report on the outcome later in the week by means of public comment. I will ensure that the Member receives a copy of that when it becomes available.
I thank the Minister and my Colleague for their work in the Ministerial Council. It is very good news that the council's headquarters will shortly be established in Newry. Despite the national importance of the body-and I know the Minister might interpret that differently- my question is nonetheless very parochial. Can the Minister give any indication as to the estimated staff complement that will be based in Newry? Can he give any indication if the Ministerial Council, when it meets in sectoral format, will actually meet in its headquarters? If that were to be the case does he agree that we will need substantial investment in the infrastructure, roads and rail communications with Newry?
Sir Reg Empey:
Well, the Member got everything in bar the kitchen sink. As I said, it was agreed in advance that the headquarters would be in Newry. I do not know whether the Member had anything to do with the lobbying for that. Undoubtedly, he tells people in Newry that it was all due to him, and I am not going to argue with him.
There are currently 14 people employed by the body, and most of these are seconded from the Northern Ireland Civil Service and that of the Republic. The number of core staff will eventually rise to 26, although the body has statutory provision to employ up to 42. The current plans are for the employment of 26 people, and they would be primarily based in Newry. At the moment, the temporary headquarters is in Londonderry House, Belfast. We have now got the former gasworks site in Newry for which terms have been agreed. It is hoped to relocate current staff to temporary premises in Newry within the next few weeks while the permanent premises are completed and fitted out. I cannot be absolutely precise about the timing of the move, but I will have a report next month from Mr Nellis on the actual timetabling.
With regard to the Member's comment about the infrastructure in the Newry area, I shall have to take his word for it. I have no doubt that improvements can be made. The words "trade" and "Newry" are almost synonymous. Whatever our constitutional views might be, Newry is a town at the crossroads; it is at the border, and it has enjoyed the reputation of being able to accommodate folk from all sides. I understand that the shopkeepers do not turn away any currency.
I hope, therefore, that the establishment of the body in Newry will have a positive impact on the economy of the area. The next meeting of the council will in October in Northern Ireland, but I cannot confirm where it will be located. We used a hotel in the Newry area last time, and I suspect we may do so again.
The Chairperson of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee (Mr P Doherty): I beg to move
That the period referred to in Standing Order 31(4) be extended by 14 calendar days to 16 October 2000, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Weights and Measures (Amendment) Bill (NIA8/99).
A Cheann Conhairle, thank you for the opportunity of speaking today in support of the motion. I would like to give some background and reasons why we want the extra 14 days. The Bill received its second reading on 22 June. The Assembly went into recess on 4 July although, as the Minister pointed out, my Committee did not go into recess until mid-August. Some of us then went off to the States to continue the work. Nevertheless, during the recess period we did involve the process of public consultation by public advertisements.
Tomorrow, the Committee will be having its first chance to meet with the Minister and his officials to deal with further detail in the Bill. We are, therefore, requesting the extra time to take on board what responses may yet come from the public and the responses we expect from the Minister and his officials tomorrow. Running alongside the Committees dealing with the Bill has of course been the ongoing work of the Committee, which has been in public session for some time.
We intend to stay in public session throughout September. Given all of those reasons it would not be an undue delay to seek an extra 14 calendar days to give our Committee time to consider the Bill, fulfil its requirements and report back to the Assembly.
Question agreed to.
That the period referred to in Standing Order 31(4) be extended by 14 calendar days to 16 October 2000, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Weights and Measures (Amendment) Bill (NIA8/99).
That Mr Roy Beggs shall replace the Rt Hon John D Taylor on the Committee of the Centre; Mrs Joan Carson shall replace Rev Robert Coulter on the Higher and Further Education Committee; and Rev Robert Coulter shall replace Mrs Joan Carson on the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee. - [Mr J Wilson]
The following motion stood on the Order Paper in the name of Mr Hay:
That Mr Nigel Dodds be appointed to the Business Committee.
I do not see Mr Hay in the Chamber.
Mr Hay is unable to be here. Is it in order for me to propose this motion?
I advise the Member and, indeed, the House that it is not possible for someone whose name is not down to propose the motion. The motion therefore falls. There is a maximum of two names for any motion. Either of those people may propose but not anyone else. The motion may, of course, be tabled for a subsequent sitting. If this becomes a problem, we may look at it again, but at this juncture we must let the motion fall.
The following motion stood on the Order Paper in the name of Mr Hay:
That Mr Jim Wells be appointed to the Assembly Commission.
I regret that, having been given the maximum possible amount of time to make his appearance, Mr Hay has not done so. Therefore the same applies to this motion.
That Mr Paul Berry shall replace Mr Edwin Poots on the Committee of Standards and Privileges. - [Mr Dodds]
I wish to inform the House that Royal Assent to the Appropriation Act and to the Allowances to Members of the Assembly Act has been signified. These Acts became law on 25 July 2000.
Adjourned at 5.04 pm.